The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
The Word that Breaks that Silence
This is what happens after silence. This. This is what happens after silence – a long silence, a forever kind of silence. This is what happens. A Word. A word is spoken and the silence is broken; the silence is no more; it is forever interrupted. This is what happens after silence.
After the 39th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah there is a 150 year silence. Before there is a chapter 40; before the prophetic word we heard today. For a century and a half the prophetic voice does not speak. The book of Isaiah is actually three books, a prophetic voice spoken through multiple mouths over a long, long time. There was a cry – an oracle of impending doom – a threat of exile. And then there was silence – a long silence.
A long silence filled with tragedy. There was the rise of Babylon the Great. Silence. There was the shocking death of their last good king. Silence. There was the enemy at their gate. Silence. There was the breach. Silence. The city, Jerusalem, was razed. Silence. The Holy Temple was burned to the ground. Silence. The survivors were carried away to Babylon – deportation, desolation, dislocation. And still, Silence.
They cried. It is not as if they didn't cry out to God. They did. They cried with Lamentations: Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow... Jerusalem's downfall was appalling with no one to comfort her. Zion stretches out her hands but there is no one to comfort her. They heard how I was groaning, with no one to comfort me. Sorrow and rage and despair. It was all met with Silence. No words. Just silence.
And then, when it seemed like the silence would last forever – this. This is what happens. A Word. A word is spoken and the silence is broken; the silence is no more; it is forever interrupted. This is what happens after silence.
God speaks, in that voice that broke the very first silence, the silence before time. God speaks, and creates a new reality. God speaks a word. And says to an exiled people, crushed by despair, with no one to comfort them: Comfort. That is the word that broke the silence. God spoke and said, “Comfort.”
It wasn't just a platitude. A platitude would be entirely insufficient to soothe the pain of that time of silence – the pain of deportation, desolation, dislocation. The pain of everything that was lost. It can't be a platitude. It can't be just a thing that was said to fill the uncomfortable silence.
The word has to create a new reality. Once, at the beginning, God said, “Let there be light” and there was light where there once had been no light. It has to be that. The word overwhelms the oppressive reality even as the word creates a new reality. God says, “Let there be comfort” and there is comfort where there once had been no comfort.
For decades the people had longed for a comfort that they could not find. They longed to hear some good news but there was only silence. They prayed prayers that never seemed to get through.
And then the word came. The word was the comfort for which they longed. The word carried the good news for which they longed. The word was the answer to all those prayers that seemed so impotent. But more than anything the word meant they were not alone. God really was there. When everything was silent. When they felt abandoned and alone. God was still there.
And God was exactly what they needed. In the Isaiah passage, there are two seemingly contrasting images of God – a juxtaposition of divine completeness. There is the God who comes with might – a powerful God. The God who is the only one strong enough to confront the arrogance of the dominant Empire. The God who will champion their cause. The God who will liberate them from their oppressors. They needed a strong God.
And there is the God who comes to comfort them. The God who will gather the lambs into gentle arms. The God who will tenderly carry them. The God who will hold them until they no longer tremble, who will hug them until the storm has passed. They were hurting. They needed a tender God.
God was both because both were needed. God of justice. And God of mercy. God of power. And God of love. They needed a God who could both love them back to health and also defend them from future hurt, a God who loved the world enough to make it better.
Babylon did fall. The exiles went home. The temple and the holy city, Jerusalem, were rebuilt. God spoke a new reality into being. A people who had lost hope, saw their bravest and boldest hopes come true.
And it all started with a word – the word that broke the silence. The word that created a new world. The word that gave hope to the hopeless.
But what if no one had ever heard that word? What if the silence was never broken?
See the prophet had his doubts. The word was beautiful and powerful and amazing. It was the good news that could shatter the darkness of their silence. But the people. Well, they were people. They were angry and confused and bitter and despairing. They did not have enough faith or hope. They did not show enough mercy or have enough love. They were everything that people always are – which meant, to the prophet, that they were not worthy of such a beautiful, powerful, amazing word from God.
Of course they weren't. People are grass – temporary, fleeting, dying. But Isaiah is told: speak anyway. Break the silence. Give them hope.
When I turn on the television or social media these days, I see the same hopelessness. I see anger and confusion. I see bitterness and despair. I see exiles far from the world for which they hoped. Desperate cries are met with partisan static. Lamentations met with message board fury.
These people are people. And they are beaten down, worn out, exhausted by the spiritual forces of wickedness that are too real, that take on flesh and blood, twisted incarnations of our own nightmares. Our oppressive Empire does not come from beyond our borders; but has been built in the shadows of our own hearts. And so we watch as we choke on the toxic fumes of racism and sexism and class-ism and a million other symptoms of our inability to love each other. It is our burden – and everyone feels it. The privilege as soul-crushing as the oppression is hope-crushing.
It is confusing. It is dizzying. A people in search of an answer. And silence.
Maybe our Advent is the time to wait, to wait for the Word to break the silence. To listen and listen until we hear it. To get ready because we know it is coming – coming to be born into our hearts and lives. That same word echoing across eternity. That same word powerful enough to confront the evils of our time but tender enough to comfort the hurting. That same word that speaks a new reality into being, that creates new worlds. That same word that gives hope to the hopeless.
The world needs a word. And God is still speaking.