December 20, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WAITING IN SILENCE
The fourth in a series of four.
We are almost there. The wait is almost over. Christmas is Friday. Which means it’s panic time for those of us who haven’t started our Christmas shopping.
There was a guy who decided he was going to simplify his Christmas. This year he wouldn’t buy any gifts. And he wouldn’t send any cards. But every time he went to his mail box, there were always cards for him. So he started feeling guilty. He figured that it wouldn’t be too much trouble to just send out just a few select cards.
He went to the store and they were all sold out except for one box of 25 cards. So he bought it. 24 people had sent him a card, so this was perfect. He quickly got the cards in the mail and then he realized he had been in such a hurry he hadn’t even read the message inside the cards he had just sent. He had one left over, so he took a look. Here’s what it said, “This cheery card is just to say, a gift from me is on the way.” Not exactly what he had intended to say.
Let’s just start today with the obvious. Some people love Christmas and some people hate it. And the people who hate it usually do a pretty good job keeping it to themselves. You might think there’s just a random Scrooge out there and everyone else agrees with the song that says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Not so. I saw a poll that said 45% of Americans would rather skip Christmas altogether. And if that’s anything like recent polls, the 45% is probably on the low side.
If the abolition of Christmas were on the ballot, it’s not a sure thing it would fail. How could that be? Everybody loves Christmas. No. Everybody does not love Christmas.
There are several obvious reasons. Over-commercialization is one. Another is the stress involved in trying to meet everyone else’s expectations. There is the busyness of this season. It wears us out. There is the inevitable family drama. We could add to this list quite easily. But I want to suggest one reason that might sound strange at first. The silence of Christmas.
What do I mean by that? Not our silence. Not the absence of noise. Not the kind of silence most of us would welcome. I’m talking about God’s silence. I’m talking about the prayers you’ve been praying this year that weren’t answered. I’m talking about the hopes you had for this year that weren’t realized. I’m talking the burden you’ve been carrying around that is getting heavier, not lighter, the closer we get to December 25.
I really think a big reason so many people have such a hard time with Christmas is that this is the time more than any other time when we wonder deep inside: “Is God really there? Is God really listening? Does God really care? Does God even know what is going on in my life and in yours?”
I think of the Guest family here in Nampa and their darling four-year-old Kyanne who lost her life crossing a street. I think of the driver who hit her and his family. I think of all the tragedies, big and small, near and far. They are magnified this time of the year.
I think of the woman I read about who lost her baby in childbirth. This was a woman who had been diagnosed with a condition that made it unlikely she could ever become pregnant, but after years of trying, finally it happened. They called it a miracle. God had answered her prayers. But the miracle turned into a tragedy. God went silent. And the light went out of her life.
Here’s what she said:
I used to be a fired-up Christian who poured herself into her faith, but now I feel nothing toward God. My husband and I used to be so close, but now we’re almost strangers. Church used to seem so exciting, but now it bores me to death. I used to love to read the Bible and pray, but now I find it both laborious and aggravating. I just feel dead.
These are the stories beneath all the bright colors and beautiful sounds of Christmas. Real people, real life, real anguish. Real silence. Where are you, God? I think we’ve all experienced the silence of God. You might be experiencing it right now.
We think of the Bible as the record of God breaking his silence and speaking to us. And yes, the Bible is that. But the Bible is also the record of God’s people waiting for God to speak, and hearing nothing. Nothing but silence.
Job is the classic example. He lost his family, his health, his livelihood. He lost everything. Listen to what he said to God:
I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up but you merely look at me (Job 30:20).
In other words, “I pray my heart out to you, O God, and all I hear are crickets.”
Have you ever prayed that prayer? Have you ever heard that sound? Have you ever waited for God to break the silence?
Christmas was a breaking of God’s silence.
God had spoken. He said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). He said, “Let my people go” (Exodus 7:16). He said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). He spoke in “a still small voice” (I Kings 19:12). He spoke louder when he said, “Let justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). He said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). He said, “I will restore to you the years the swarming locusts have devoured” (Joel 2:25). He eventually did break the silence and speak to Job. And he spoke through his prophets with prophecies of Jesus long before Jesus was born.
God had a lot to say. A lot. And then he went silent.
You probably know that the Bible is divided into two main sections. There is the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible. And there is the New Testament. The Old Testament ends with a book called Malachi. The New Testament begins with a book called Matthew. This is where we find the first of the two Christmas stories.
What you may not know is that when you turn the page from Malachi to Matthew, you are traveling in time 400 years. One turn of the page. 400 years of human history. 400 years of waiting. God had spoken. God had said, “Wait for the Messiah.” Then nothing. Nothing but silence.
400 years is a long time. 400 years ago the Pilgrims landed. If you had a relative who came over on the Mayflower (or if you had a relative who met the Mayflower) it would have to be someone with about 12 greats in front of his or her name. That’s how long it was between the last book of the Old Testament and the first book of the New Testament.
Do you suppose during those 400 years of waiting anyone ever asked, “Where is God?” Do you suppose anyone ever said, “God, what are you doing?” Do you suppose anyone ever wondered, “Is God even real?”
This is the prelude to Christmas. You don’t understand Christmas if you don’t understand this. We love to sing, “Silent Night.” But before that one and only silent night in Bethlehem, there were 400 years of silent nights. 400 years x 365.25 = 146,100 consecutive silent nights. That’s a lot of verses. That’s a lot of silence. That’s a lot of waiting, and wondering, and doubting, and hoping.
Then at long last, the silence was broken. You know the story: “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Like any other night. Like any other silent night. This one was no different. But wait. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” Of course they were. 400 years of not hearing from God, and God sends them an angel. They would have been scared to death!
But the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you; you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
It’s good news of a great joy. It’s good news of a great joy because the silence has been broken. But more than that. It’s good news of a great joy because the Christmas story helps us understand the silence. It helps us see what God is doing when God is silent. And here’s today’s takeaway: When God is silent it does not mean God is absent.
Here’s what Christmas is not. God feels bad. God has been busy with other concerns. He’s kind of forgotten about us. 400 years of silence. But it bothers him. Kind of like a parent who has been paying too much attention to his work and not enough attention to his children. It bothers him. He’s feeling guilty, so he’s going to make up for it. So in God’s case, how about giving the human race the most amazing Christmas present ever?
No, that’s not Christmas.
God’s silence does not mean God’s absence. God has been here all along. He never left. He never will leave. In fact, that’s his name. The angel told Joseph, “His name shall be called Emmanuel, which means, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
So what does that mean for you? It means God is with you. Right now. God is at work even when we don’t know it and can’t see it. Even when God is silent, God is not absent.
There was a woman named Carol. Her year had been horrible. Two of her closest friends had taken their own lives. She had no clue. Or at least the clues that were there she had failed to see. What kind of a friend was she? She was severely depressed.
She prayed that God would guide her to someone who needed her help. Then a name popped into her head. A phone call might cheer this person up. But she called the wrong number. She couldn’t do anything right. But it was like the old saying that you know you live in a small town when you dial the wrong number and still talk for 30 minutes. Carol and this total stranger named Sue had a long conversation. Sue sounded kind of down. At the end of the call, Sue asked if it would be OK if they talked again.
And so Carol and Sue became cell phone friends. They had a regular time each week when they would talk. Their conversations got deeper and more personal, until one day Carol told Sue about her faith in Jesus.
They lived in different parts of the country, but it so happened that about a year later, Carol had a business trip that took her to the city where Sue lived. They met for the first time and had dinner together. That’s when Sue told the story she had never told anyone before.
About a year ago she had decided to take her own life. She was going to jump off a bridge. On her way to the bridge, she ran out of gas. That interrupted her plan. She couldn’t do anything right. She got a ride back home and sat alone in her apartment wishing she were dead. That’s when her phone rang. It was a wrong number named Carol. It was their conversations that gave Sue hope. Because of Carol, she had started going to church. Because of Carol, she had accepted Jesus as her Savior.
God was at work and they couldn’t see it. They didn’t know it. They were just two depressed people who needed someone to talk to. Little did they know that behind the scenes, God was at work. God was saving both of their lives.
There are some of you who are waiting for God to show up. And you’ve been waiting a long time. You’ve been praying, but you wonder if God is listening. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one or you’ve lost a relationship or you’ve lost a job or you’ve lost your mojo. You just feel lost. And Christmas makes it worse. Can you believe that God is at work even when you can’t see it?
Christmas came after 400 years of silence. Christmas came to the most unlikely people. Shepherds. They were afraid, they were outcasts, they were not even believers. But that night they believed. They thought they were beyond saving. But they were the ones God came to first with the good news of a great joy.
Christmas breaks the silence. God is at work when we cannot hear him, when we cannot see him, when we wonder if he is here at all. He is here. Silence does not mean absence. God is with us. Emmanuel.
Phillips Brooks said it best in the Christmas carol we all love. Even the 45%. It has to be close to 100% who love “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and the verse that says:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
Dear God, open our hearts to Jesus. Open our hearts to the good news of a great joy that has come to all the people. God you know us. You know all about us. You know that for some of us Christmas is our favorite time of the year and for some of us it is our least favorite. But God, we are all the same in our need for a Savior. For you have broken your silence. You have come to us in our need. The wait is over. Jesus is born. May he be born in us. Amen.