An Invitation of Advent: Into Great Silence

I have a recurring nightmare.  It is Sunday morning, and I am scheduled to preach.  But something goes horribly wrong.  I discover I have slept through my alarm and missed the service.  Or I dream that I can’t find the church (odd, since I have driven to Knox more than 4000 times).  Other nights, I dream that I arrived to worship on time, but can’t recall what I was planning to say – nor can I find my notes.  Worst of all, some nights I dream I get up to speak in a worship service and have no voice.

According to Luke’s gospel, that last nightmare of mine came to life for a priest named Zechariah.  One day, Zechariah stood up to speak before a group of people gathered for worship.  And he could not utter a sound.  It had been his turn that year to be the sole priest who entered the sanctuary to offer incense.  And as the Jewish people had gathered to pray outside, Zechariah alone went in.  Once inside, an angel appeared to Zechariah, and it terrified him.  But the angel told him not to be afraid, for this angel came bearing good news.  He told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would soon bear a son and that they were to name him John.  Many would rejoice at his birth, and he would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.

Zechariah then asked the angel for some assurance of these things, as his wife Elizabeth was “getting on in years.”  The angel responded by giving his name – Gabriel – and proclaiming that he not only stood in the presence of God but was sent by God to bring this good news.  And Gabriel declared that until these things had taken place, Zechariah would be unable to speak.  When Zechariah emerged from the sanctuary, he could only communicate with the gathered congregation via hand motions.  He was living a preacher’s nightmare.

And yet, the way Luke’s Gospel tells the story, there is a not only punishment, but a gift and invitation too in Zechariah being struck mute.  When he had been so quick to speak in the angel’s presence, Zechariah had missed truly hearing and seeing what God was up to – in his own household and in the people of ancient Israel as a whole.  John the Baptist would be born to Elizabeth and Zechariah and would prepare the way for God’s messiah.  To help Zechariah reflect on this wondrous news, Gabriel invited him to receive – for a season – the gift of great silence.  Observing that silence, Zechariah could then attend more fully to the voice, presence, and promises of God.

Advent, which extends from December 3rd to the 24th, is an annual invitation into great silence.   It’s a time when we listen for God’s voice and lean on the promises of God proclaimed by the prophets.  It’s a season of watching, waiting, and attending to God.  Advent also marks the beginning of the church year. And as the angel Gabriel reminded Zechariah, silence can be a most fitting first response to the presence and proclamation of the living God.  As songs like Silent Night and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence remind us, what more fitting response could there be to the miracle of the incarnation than silence?  Yes, there will come a time to “Go Tell It on the Mountain”–  and proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ to the world.

There will come a time when it will be vital to speak out for the good and decry the wrong.  But if we never pause to contemplate God’s work in the world – and God’s word to us – how can we engage in the world as God’s people?

Amid the often frantic activity of this season leading up to Christmas, I invite you to observe an Advent discipline this year: taking time each day to sit in silence.  Silence can be challenging – especially for pastors, priests, and others prone to speak.  But what we can hear when we listen is amazing.  Such a time of daily silence can be especially meaningful when it follows a reading and reflection on Scripture.  Beginning December 3rd, many of us at Knox will be reading the devotional Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro.  The book provides daily scripture readings for Advent as well as the author’s reflections on the day’s passage – some great stuff to reflect on in a brief time of silence.

May the season of Advent welcome us all into wonder, awe, and rich contemplation of the word of God.  And from that reflection, may we – as a people made one with Christ – live out that great call of God from the prophet Micah, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

~ Pastor Matt