Slow… Still… Know.
Listen… Wait… Hope.
“Be still, and know that I am God.” -Ps. 46:10
It’s hard to listen in the noise, in the busyness, isn’t it? It’s hard to know when we can’t hear. And it’s difficult to hear when God is silent.
God’s silence is felt. God’s silence is both an inward and external experience. And it can cause us to question our identity as the Beloved of God.
Let’s go on pilgrimage with God’s people using the songbook of the Bible–the Psalms. We find within the Psalms a set of Pilgrim Songs–the Songs of Ascents–which were a sung part of worship as God’s people journeyed to Jerusalem three times a year for the Jewish Festivals: the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths. Jesus would have spent His earthly life making this same pilgrimage, singing these same Songs of Ascents, and attending these same feasts with His family and community. The same is true for both Joseph and Mary.
The pilgrimage begins with distress and crying out to God.
Psalm 120 A Pilgrim Song (MSG)
I’m in trouble. I cry to God,
desperate for an answer:
“Deliver me from the liars, God!
They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.”
Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming,
all you barefaced liars?
Pointed arrows and burning coals
will be your reward.
I’m doomed to live in Meshech,
cursed with a home in Kedar,
My whole life lived camping
among quarreling neighbors.
I’m all for peace, but the minute
I tell them so, they go to war!
Sit with those words. What does this stir within you? Which lines resonate with your own experience?
In the midst of God’s silence lived an older couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, long past childbearing years, still longing for a child.
During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old. It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. (Lk. 1:5-10)
What do you wonder about Zechariah as he went into the Holy of Holies for this rare privilege of being chosen by lot to perform the priestly duty, to offer the incense and prayers that day, after over 400 years of God’s silence? How would you approach God in prayer on behalf of His people if He had been silent that long…your entire ministry career…your entire life?
I don’t know about you, but I would prepare beforehand what I intended to pray before I arrived to offer the incense. If I had only one opportunity to go into the Presence of God and offer up prayers, I imagine I would spend days fretting over exactly what to say, wanting to not miss anything important and get it right. I would feel the weight of the responsibility as a representative of God’s people before Him as well as God’s representative to His people. I would be a control-freak mess. But by the appointed time, I would have my list and be eager to perform my duty the way I thought it should be done.
Interesting that God’s plans can be greatly different from our own, especially if He has been silent and we don’t know what He desires. But God knows our hearts. Even if Zechariah had been so focused on the prayers of the people that he forgot his own heart -cries, God didn’t.
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. (Ro. 8:22-28 MSG, emphasis mine)
The prayer and longing for a child may or may not have been on Zechariah’s list that day, but it was on God’s. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child was uniquely created by God to be an important part of His plan of salvation. And their God delighted in bringing to fruition their hearts’ deepest desires.
And so…God broke the silence.
Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.
But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.
“He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.”
Zachariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”
But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.” (Lk. 1:11-20 MSG)
Do you find it at all intriguing and possibly even humorous that, in the same few moments of God breaking His 400-year silence, due to the priest’s response of unbelief, he was given a nine-month sentence of personal silence? The parent in me finds this consequence to be quite appropriate and funny. Any other parent out there think so?
Become Zechariah in this scene…in your current situation. What are the true prayers and cries of your heart heard by God and expressed by His Spirit living within you? If the Spirit “does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs,” then what is the Holy Spirit praying for you before God today?
As you ponder the Holy Spirit praying on your behalf, what do you notice happening within you?
It gets even better. You not only have the Holy Spirit crying out to the Father on your behalf. You have God’s very Son praying at His right hand for you.
The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. (Ro. 8:34 MSG)
Beloved, you are not alone, even if God seems silent. You have the Holy Spirit and Jesus interceding for you before the Father. What a beautiful image of the Trinity! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit discussing your struggles, your desires, your relationship with them, and agreeing what they will do because they love you. Deeply. Fully. Eternally.
I wonder what ponderings Zechariah had during his nine-months of no words. I’m guessing some heart-shaping took place for his next, even greater, role: fatherhood.