Sunday Week 4 Year B

My history with telling people to shut up has not been a good one! I remember saying it my grandmother … I can’t remember what on earth she was saying to annoy me but I, 7 or 8 years old, remember very well the look that crossed her face … but even today I can’t put a name to it, a name to fix the emotion and make it manageable.
I think I gave up telling adults to be quiet after that, even though part of me thought that since they were always telling me to be quiet, to hush up, to sit still, to stop making a noise, then why couldn’t I return the favour. Anyway, prudence won out over my childish principles and I moved on in my acts of silencing to my peers. It’s a great way to handle schoolyard disputes, especially if you are quicker of tongue than you are fleet of foot or strong of limb. And the language of my childhood was full of choice idioms to help you win your carefully reasoned argument. Once I’d mastered “shut up,” there was “shut your cake-hole,” “shut your trap,” “shut your gob,” “put a sock in it,” etc. If the other kid was smaller you could always add a threat, from the humble “shut up or I’ll shut you up” … right up to the elaborate “are you talking to me or chewing a brick ’cause either you’re gonna lose your teeth.”
Now in adult life you haven’t got such an arsenal to play with. Silencing the other is a much more subtle game and the other is more usually friend than foe. But the cold shoulder, the blank gaze, the creative misunderstanding, the un-returned phone call, the calculated insult, the carefully withheld affection—these all work pretty well. But it is a dangerous game. Not just because the other—the lover, the comrade, the friend—is fighting back with the same weapons and you might lose … but, far worse, you might win. I hate to think of the friendships frozen, the loves lessened, the distances nurtured by winning the game of silence. And the nameless and un-nameable look that turns victory into loss. There’s nothing worse than getting what you want only to discover you’ve lost something better. And once you’ve silenced someone you love you might never hear the voice again as it was, as you remember, as your heart desires.
It’s the same with God. Once upon a time God walked in the cool of the afternoon with Adam and Eve. Once upon a time God thundered on Horeb’s heights and laid down a covenant with the impetuous people of Israel. Yet they told God to shut up. “Let us not again hear the voice of Adonai, our God, not see this great fire any more, lest we die.” “You’re suffocating me God … I need my space.” And from then on, in the Bible, God grows ever more silent, speaking to fewer and fewer of the people. Speaking only second hand through prophets, third-hand though scripture scholars, fourth-hand through preachers. And in a way too the world has grown silent—ceasing to shout out the glory of God whether we like it or not—and now only whispering that presence when we strain our hearts to hear. We have shut God up and now we have to strain to hear God’s voice at all. Maybe if we could retrace our steps to that moment at Mt Horeb’s feet and silence our own request for silence—maybe then God would be more apparent, more present. But we’d also have to unlearn the cold-shoulder, the blank gaze, the carefully withheld affection that we have honed to sustain that divine silence.
Maybe. Maybe that would be the whole story if it weren’t for the Incarnation. “In the beginning was the WORD,” says John. And the Jesus we’ve been walking with these last few weeks is a master of words and a master of silence. He emerges quietly out of a silent life to be baptized. He strides into the desert to silence Satan with a word. He walks the water’s edge and summons disciples who drop everything at his word. And here today he stills an unquiet spirit’s howling with another word: “Quiet!” The word in the original is another idiom, one you’d use to silence a yapping dog: “Be muzzled!” “Muzzle it!” And it works. Silence! Silence and amazement and noisily spreading fame.
God has not given up on the human race no matter the human race’s desire to keep God at arms length. The Jesus that strides through the gospel is a mystery but a loud mystery—you can’t shut him up … though he’s very good at shutting up others. He uses the art of silencing with panache.
But there’s a difference worth paying attention to. Back on Horeb and ever since we have asked not to hear the voice of God, the voice of goodness, because we have been afraid to bear the weight of its blessing, afraid it might be too good to be true. Jesus, on the other hand, shuts up only the voice of the raging spirit, the dark voice that echoes inside us each and all, shouting sorrow or whispering despair. And there’s our choice and our challenge: which spirit do we listen to from day to day: the inner words that bless our lives or the interior dialogue of death and decay … The spirits of God drawing us to life and hope and happiness or the condemning spirits speaking gloom, captivity, and confusion. Which do we listen to? And which do we silence?
Or let’s turn it around right now … Right now, out of all the babble that fills your head and mine, what does Jesus really not want to hear? What do we need him to silence inside us? to muzzle for us and shut up? … Because he will if asked …
And in all our heart’s chatter what does Jesus most deeply want to listen to? Of all the things we might say right now what does he want to hear? And if you have a hunch—even a tiny one—of what it might be, well, trust it for a moment and speak to him.