When God is Silent
Imagine a man left for more than a month in a remote desert, parched landscape all that surrounds him. He has suddenly been taken away from his friends, his family, the comforts of his home. Unlike any time in this man’s life previous to this experience, he is now engaged in trying to survive—scrounging for food where it does not exist, living off whatever he can find, struggling to extract enough clean water to keep himself alive. No shelter awaits him; he has to come up with a make-shift alternative to keep himself covered. He’s fighting the elements, the sun burning his skin, the dust flying in his face all day long. The bugs are biting and the wildlife all around seems threatening.
To make matters worse, the environment seems to bring out all the character flaws this man never thought he had. He went into this feeling like his life was on the right track, but all of the sudden the desires he had banished came to the surface again. The austere and disciplined life he had achieved starts falling apart when he finds he’s tempted to sell his soul just for one slice of bread. The man is surrounded by voices of greed, jealousy, dishonesty and competition. He’s drawn into the temptation of giving everything up for what looks, off in the distance, like utter happiness and total fulfillment.
I don’t know about you, but I love watching the TV show, Survivor!
Perhaps it’s a more shallow theological mind that hears the recounting of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and thinks immediately of Survivor, but as we’re starting Lent, I thought I would begin this morning with that confession.
With the reminder of Jesus’ temptation in the desert on our minds this morning, I welcome you to the first Sunday of the season of Lent, a season that started this past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, when we began 40 days of following Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the cross.
The theme guiding our Lenten practice as a worshipping community this year is Holy Conversations. I hope you’ve had an opportunity to pick up the Riverside devotional booklet and begin reading along with the reflections of your fellow church members. And I was so glad to see so many of you here on Friday night—a very, very cold night indeed—when we heard some phenomenal voices in conversation with the liturgy of the church: 7 Last Words calling us to confession, repentance, action.
It’s conversations like these, with God and with each other, that help us change course, shift perspective, move more deeply into an awareness of God’s work in our lives and in the world.
And so we continue the conversation this morning with the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert, a passage that the church traditionally reads every year on this first Sunday of Lent. Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all three of the synoptic gospels tell this story. Earlier in worship you heard a reading of Matthew’s recounting of events.
Recall what has just happened to Jesus: after Jesus’ riveting birth narrative, John the Baptist appears and begins preaching and baptizing, and an adult Jesus himself then appears on the scene, jumps into the river with John and baptized, comes up dripping, conviction burning in his gut, his heart pulled toward something—something he couldn’t quite see but felt more strongly than he’d ever felt anything before. He was ready to follow, ready to do whatever it would take, ready to answer that conviction in his soul.
And the text says next that the Spirit led him out into the wilderness, where he wandered for 40 days with little to eat, listening, listening. What was he trying to hear?
The text doesn’t say, but if I had to, I’d guess he was waiting for direction. An assignment, maybe. It wouldn’t have to come in explicit words, per say. A dream would be great. Or maybe an idea. Even just a hunch may have reassured him that God was showing up, in conversation with him, ready to lead him to great things, right?
But it was forty days in the desert. Parched. Alone. Afraid. Not one word from God.
As I’ve already pointed out, it’s Lent, a season of confession, so I have another confession to make. You heard Matthew’s version of this story earlier, but the actual assigned text from the lectionary this year comes from Mark’s gospel. Here’s how Mark describes Jesus’ time in the desert: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts….”
I asked for Matthew’s version to be read because I wanted all of us to have a fuller picture of the details of Jesus’ experience—but it’s interesting to note that Mark just kind of skips over the whole thing to get Jesus in and out of the desert in two verses.
And I think that’s important to note, maybe because the writer of Mark was thinking what I was: 40 days in the desert, 40 days of angst and fear and confusion and seeking, and no word from God? Let’s just move onto happier memories, please!
I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer not to dwell on God’s silence. But as we are beginning Lent, living these forty days of darkness and confession, confronting our mortality and listening intently for conversations that help us see our way…well, what are we supposed to do when we’re in the middle a wasteland like this, hoping for a holy conversation, and God is silent?
Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Very few people come to see me because they want to discuss something God said to them last night. The large majority come because they cannot get God to say anything at all.”
Isn’t that the shared human experience? From Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts to the sonnets of John Donne to Luci Shaw’s God in the Dark to the anguished letters of Mother Teresa, it seems like it’s part of the human experience to crave holy conversations with the divine—or at least something—just a word or two, to help us know we’re on the right track. But sometimes all we hear is empty, yawning silence. And when all we hear is the silence it is so hard to keep going, isn’t it?
Perhaps the one of recent history’s deepest expressions of anguish over God’s silence is the story of Elie Wiesel. I’m sure many of you know of Elie Wiesel, a Nobel-Prize winning writer, teacher and activist famous for his memoir Night, which you (hopefully) had to read in some English class somewhere along the way.
At the age of 15, Wiesel and his entire family were sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz during the Holocaust. After undergoing horrific suffering, Wiesel was finally released in 1945. Almost his entire family was killed. Elie Wiesel wrote Night, a memoir in which he speaks so deeply and hauntingly about the silence of God.
“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is He? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”
It happened to Jesus. In the fasting, the silence got deafening…and then he heard another voice. The text says the voice was Satan’s, but no matter the name of that voice, it’s familiar to you and me, too. It’s the voice we hear when we’re wandering in the dark, following the pull of what we thought was God’s Spirit, looking and listening for God to show up, but not hearing much of anything at all. Very often that voice sounds like this:
I know you came into this desert to think deeply about a new life, an alternative way of living that will invite you to do strange things like put others first, give up personal gain and even comfort for a cause higher than your own accumulation of material things. But…what’s the point of that? I don’t want to be the first one to say it, but have you considered that maybe that’s crazy? Maybe YOU’RE crazy…?
Or, how noble of you to give up your position, power, title, and influence to take an alternative path. But, not to be a downer or anything, without the glaring lights of Times Square to show you where to go, what are you going to do? Don’t you think it’s just a little overdramatic to walk away from all of that? You might need it someday!
And, you know that Lenten determination you made to tell the truth about your life, to be authentic and vulnerable and real? Ehhhh, might not be the smartest avenue to take. I’m not suggesting you LIE, per se, I just mean: just cover things up a bit. Put on a shiny face! Let the world see your best side. Nobody wants to hear about the hardship and heartbreak, the pain and fear.
Sound familiar? This voice is not the voice of God, with whom you and I deeply long to converse. But it is the voice all of us hear in the desert…in the darkness…while we’re waiting for a word from God. And it’s easy to give in to the other voices, to launch conversations like these when, like Elie Wiesel, we’re finally convinced that God will not speak after all.
But don’t listen to that voice. Instead on this first Sunday of Lent, hear a word of hope: that the God who came to live among us, to walk our weary way along with us, will not leave us in our silence. As we wait for God to speak, we also learn new ways to hear, and we begin to recognize other voices that fill the silence with the echo of God’s voice, so that when the voice of God sounds, we will immediately recognize it.
Remember, it’s Lent, so…I have one last confession.
Earlier, I read you the very short Markan version of this passage, but there was one little piece of Mark’s version of the story that I left off. Here’s the whole thing: And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts? Oh!…and there’s one tiny phrase at the end that reads: “and the angels waited on him”.
The angels waited on him.
In this passage that speaks so hauntingly of God’s silence, there are others who came to be with Jesus, to remind him that he did not wait to hear from God in vain. God would show up, and until God did, angels attended.
You may feel that you are in a desert, in a place devoid of God’s presence and voice, devoid of maybe even God’s love. In that place, where God seems silent, wait. Step into the desert that is your life and listen. Listen for the promise that darkness will soon become light. Listen to the truth that the bitter cold will warm all around you. Listen to the reality that loneliness will always become community.
Listen: death will become life…and silence will certainly become a word from the Lord.
God of the desert and the silence, help us keep listening. Give us courage to take the next step in the dark, unafraid. Let us hear your voice in the silence…and, while we wait, let us remind each other that you will, finally, speak.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent.
 Elie Wiesel, Night.