When God Is Silent

Fifth in a YAFI (You Asked For It) Series,
Delivered July 4, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Psalm 102:1-7
1 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.

It happened in the middle of a TV news broadcast. An inexplicable moment of silence. Every broadcaster’s nightmare, dead air. Where the seconds seem to turn into eternity. But the anchorman was pretty quick. He had a bright idea. He broke the silence by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, the foregoing moment of silence was brought to you courtesy of the Sacramento City Library.”

You and I live in the midst of constant pervasive background noise. Here on this weekend with fireworks and bands playing, and backyard barbeque celebrations with friends and family, we are a people who have pretty much grown unaccustomed to, and really fearful of silence.

Silence is particularly painful when that silence is the silence of God. Oh, how we would like to be like Moses where God speaks to us all the time through burning bushes. How we would like to be like Elijah who throughout his life carried on a running conversation with God.

We have got neighbors who come up to us and say, “The Lord was telling me today…blah..blah…blah…” And we cry out, “Then why, God, are you so mute when it comes to me?” The silence is agonizing. Particularly when we are in agony. When our lives are afflicted. When we are in turmoil and we turn to the Lord for an answer, and all we are met with is silence.

That is the exact situation in which the psalmist finds himself in this morning. I would invite you this morning to see, to just see if God might break the silence as we stand on tiptoe and strain to hear his voice. Turn with me to Psalm 102, as we look at the first seven verses of the Psalm. I would invite you to keep your Bibles and your ears open during this sermon, as we look at this text. This is the Word of God.

Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food, because of my loud groaning I am reduced to skin and bones. I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof.

Join me as we pray: Now Father, as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

One of the reasons churches hire pastors, one of the reasons you called me to be your pastor ten years ago, was to help you deal with God’s reticence. His ambiguity. His mystery. Nowhere more caught up than in the silence of God. 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. We don’t know what to do with God’s silence.

One combination that does not mix, is God’s silence and our pain. That is a lethal cocktail that the psalmist is choking on in this text before us this morning. In this text we get almost a concentration camp-like black-and-white snapshot of this poor man.

In verse 2, we are told he is in distress. How bad is his distress? Verse 3: his life is disappearing before him like a wisp of smoke. He is apparently very ill. (Verse 3) 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 unclean desert owl, dwelling amongst the ruins of what used to be a life.

We talk about ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ If that is the case, then this guy is a total, total reject. Verse 7: he is like an isolated bird sitting on a rooftop. This guy is hurting. Big time! And the salt in the wound is the silence of God.

Don’t you wish that the Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, had a complaint box? Where we could slip our complaints into it without fear of being vaporized. Well, I have got good news for you. He does, and we can.

Right here in this Psalm, you and I have Biblical warrant to complain to God, even about God. I want you to look at the title of this Psalm above verse 1. In fact, in the original Hebrew text, this title is included as verse 1. It says that this is the prayer of an afflicted man who pours out his lament before the Lord. Now lament is a fancy word for complaint. The psalmist is complaining to God here, and he has a lot to complain about because God is silent.

Because God is silent in verse 1, the psalmist is wondering, ‘God, are you even listening to all of these prayers I am pouring out to you from the bottom of my soul?’ Can you identify with that?

Because God is silent in verse 2, the psalmist wonders if God is playing hide-and-seek with him. Those are games the psalmist does not want to play. He has had enough of that. He wants answers and he wants them now. Can you and I identify with him at this point?

Hey friends, when God is silent you and I don’t have to be. We can complain. We can complain to God. We can even complain to God about God, and he is not going to strike us dead. God knows what is on our hearts. He wants us to pour ourselves out before him. We do not have to hide our feelings. Right here we have Biblical warrant to complain.

But when God is silent, complaining is not the only thing you and I should do. When God is silent you and I need to question the silence. We need to ask questions like, ‘Is this silence for real, or am I missing something? Is God actually dumb, or am I just deaf?’ Because you see, there are times when God is very talkative; when he is conversing with us, or at least trying to, and we just don’t hear him because of a number of reasons.

One of those reasons is sin. Unconfessed sin, or lifestyles of persistent sin, plug up our ears so that even when God is talking, we can’t hear him. Now this is kind of gross, but when I was in college, I came down with a severe case of strep throat. It was so bad, that the infection spread to my inner ears and I was actually going deaf. At one point (here is the gross part) the doctors removed tremendously large plugs of wax out of my ears. But when they did, all of the sudden I could hear again. Sin, when it is unchecked in your life and mine, spreads like an infection and can plug up our ears of faith.

But God in his graciousness convicts you and me when we sin. But we need to act upon that conviction. When we do and turn to him in repentance and confess our sin, then God graciously unstops our ears of faith, and we discover that he has been talking to us all along, we just couldn’t hear him. Or we wouldn’t hear him.

Another way that you and I miss God speaking to us, is that sometimes we just drown him out. We are constantly listening to our Walkmans and TVs and to each other. We get involved in our careers and we are listening to all of the latest stuff out there, and God’s voice simply gets lost in the crowd.

Oh, but can’t God get our attention? Isn’t he going to speak to us with some sort of a big bang, and overshadow all of those other voices? Well, if you read your Bible you will find that God doesn’t usually speak in a loud voice. We are told that he speaks in a still, small voice; a still small voice that easily gets drowned out when you and I are listening to everything else out there. The cacophony of the world’s siren and seductive voices.

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, laid down quietly on the floor, and then I began to listen. After a while, I could hear the tick, tick, tick of the watch.”

That is why I am always after you all to have a daily quiet time in the Word of God. Where you are getting alone. Where you are getting out of the hustle and bustle of the world, and getting into the Word of God. Because in God’s Word, he is continually having a conversation, a running conversation with us. Or at least he wants to; if we will let him get a word in edgewise. But sometimes we are just too busy to listen.

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. It is not that he is not speaking to us, it is just that we have forgotten what his voice sounds like. So, we miss it.

Back in the late nineteenth century at Dartmouth College, a young American Indian boy roomed with an Anglo student. Over Christmas vacation the Anglo invited the Indian to come home with him to his home in New York City. The Indian had never been to the big city before, and one day they were walking down 5th Avenue, and the Indian 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 the Indian boy stopped and he said, “Listen. Do you hear it? A cricket.” His roommate said, “What are you crazy?” The Indian 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.

Again, this is why you and I need to get constantly, daily, into the Word of God. As you and I are into the Word, it is there that we learn God’s speech patterns. We begin to get our ears re-tuned the frequency of his voice.

Now with all of that let me say, that yes, there are times when God is speaking to us and he seems silent because we can’t hear him. We have plugged up our ears. We have ignored him. We are out of tune; or whatever. But, there are also those times in your life and mine, as believers, when God is silent. When he is mute. When he is dumb. When he is non-communicative. When he is really silent. And it is not due to having our ears plugged up or anything else. He is silent.

That is bad news, isn’t it? Not necessarily. In fact, what I want you and me to leave here realizing this morning, is that when God is silent, that is no less than a part of his grace. One way that is a part of his grace, is that God’s silence continually saves you and me from idolatry. Only idols speak and answer every time they are addressed by the idol worshiper. Only idols always speak.

When God is silent in your life and mine, it is a reminder to us that he is sovereign and we are not. That he will speak when, and where, and how, when he full well pleases, and not just when we demand it. God is sovereign. He is no idol.

A second reason that God’s silence is a part of his grace is that through his silence he reminds you and me of his reality. You and I don’t miss things that are not real. You and I don’t long for unicorns (at least I hope we don’t). When God is silent, it is so painful because we so badly need the reality of his presence in our lives. That pain is a reminder of God’s reality. When God is silent, those most profound moments of silence are also the most profound moments of his presence.

When God is silent we are always worried that he is absent. We have his promise that he is never absent from us. That silence, is a reminder that we long for him, that we hunger for him, that we thirst for him. You and I only hunger and thirst, and only miss what is real. A reminder of his reality.

A third way that God’s silence is a part of his grace, is that it is one of his ways of getting our attention when we are distracted with a myriad of other things. We get caught up into so much stuff; and then when God goes silent; it is that silence, that pain of that silence, that stirs up in you and me that longing, that hunger, that will hopefully push us toward doing something about it. Moving us toward him and into the arms, the very arms, of Jesus Christ. Who by the way, is the only person who has ever lived on the face of this earth that has ever heard, the total deafening silence of God. As he was nailed to that cross, and from the cross cried out to God, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ And that cry was answered by nothing but silence.

So, when God is silent in your life, embrace your “Companion of the Quiet” — Jesus, who promises to walk with you and me through that silence. In her book entitled When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words that I close with. I would encourage you to contemplate these words as you come to the Lord’s Table this morning. She writes,

“God’s silence is as much a sign of God’s presence as of God’s absence. That divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled, but a mystery to be entered into. Unarmed with words and undistracted by noise, a holy of holies, in which we too may be struck dumb by the power of the unsayable God.”

Join me as we pray:
Lord God, we hate your silence, and yet we thank you that you are not an idol. We thank you that you break your silence and speak to us through your Word and ultimately through Jesus Christ. Lord, redeem your silence in our lives. May it be the impetus that drives us further towards you and not away from you. Lord, we pray as we come to your table this morning, that you would break the silence here with your real presence, and speak to us in our heart of hearts, that word that we need to hear, that might mold and shape us more and more toward the mind of Christ. We ask these things in his holy and precious name. Amen.