Hearing the Voice of God in the Silence: A Post-September 11 Sermon
March 30, 2003
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . . . And God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness." So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion." . . . And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. . . .
This is the book of the generations of Adam. On the day that God created humankind, in the likeness of God made he him. Male and female created he them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam on the day that they were created. (Genesis 1:1, 27, 31; 5:1, 2)
Reading from Swedenborg
If we were born into the love for which we were created, we would have no evil. In fact, we would not even know what evil is, since if we have not experienced evil we cannot know what it is--and we would not believe it if we were told this or that is evil. This is the state of innocence in which Adam and his wife Eve were, and it is symbolized by their being naked and not ashamed. The knowledge of evil after the fall is symbolized by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The love for which we were created is love to the neighbor. . . . But when love of the neighbor was turned into self-love, and this love increased, human love was turned into animal love, and from being human we became beasts--with the difference that we can think about what we sense physically, rationally distinguish among things, be taught, and become civil and moral people, and finally spiritual beings. (Divine Providence #275-76)
Our Bible's Creation story tells us that when God made everything in the beginning, it was very good. God's intent and design were fulfilled in the handiwork of creation: an orderly world with a special and beautiful garden--a haven complete with rivers, trees, and abundant fruits. There God placed the man and woman he had created as an image and likeness of himself, a reflection of his glory. Creator God became friend of man, walking and talking in sweet communion in the cool leisure of the day. The familiar Bible story begins in wonder, and ends in error and rejection--and we ask, "Why?" If God made everything very good, and man in his own image, then why this dismal outcome?
Millenniums later, with the tragic loss of human life and potential in what was once seen as a safe haven by many, we find ourselves even more at a loss, and asking that ageless question. As we stand on our native soil below what were once beautiful and spacious skies, now ugly with billowing smoke and towering infernos etched permanently into our minds, we ask why? Why would an all-wise, all-loving creator God allow such mindless destruction to be inflicted upon his own creation--the very image of himself?
In the aftermath of these events, I feel that such unspeakable horrors could not be the culmination of God's handiwork, of God's wisdom and utterance, "And behold, it was very good."
The Christian explains that it is all a matter of free will, "Don't blame God for man's choices! God gives us freedom to choose, and allows bad things to happen so that we may learn our lesson." Others resist, asking, "How much more purposeless destruction before humanity learns its lesson in morality?" The atheist inserts, "What kind of God allows untold suffering and countless innocent ones to die? Does such a God truly hear and answer our prayers?" How do we fathom the unspeakable, and the silence on the part of a God whom the Bible portrays as caring? Remember the old adage: "An inquiring mind wants to know."
In the book of Ecclesiastes, "the preacher," or assemblyman, writes of God when considering the meaning or vanity of all life:
Consider God's doings! Who can straighten what he has twisted? So in a time of good fortune, enjoy; and in a time of misfortune, reflect. God has made the one as well as the other; therefore man may find no fault with him. In my own brief life span I have seen both of these: a good man perishing in spite of his goodness, and a wicked man enduring in spite of his wickedness. So don't overdo goodness, and don't act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumbfounded. Don't overdo wickedness and don't be a fool, or you may die before your time. It is best that you grasp the one without letting go of the other, for one who fears God will do his duty by both (Ecclesiastes 7:13-18).
The preacher's advice is to be good, but not too good; to be canny, but not overly canny. Similarly, Jesus says, "Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Is God clear in his purposes, or altogether too clear? How do we translate the theological sense of the preacher or the Biblical text into good common sense?
In our search for meaning, too often the answers, theoretically abundant, appear cold, providing no solace. Words become mere rhetoric--uncaring, inadequate, uninformed, and ill-advised, leaving us at a loss, expressionless, and silent--our soul inwardly crying out all the more for explanation, longing for resolution.
This silence speaks so loudly that it deafens the ear. We are reminded of the many who lost confidence in an omniscient, omnipotent God that remained silent during another holocaust. "Where were you, God, when we needed you?" The all-knowing God who spoke the all-powerful words that made us into the all-so-special people had apparently turned deaf ears on the people of his creating. Why such silent detachment? Deus absconditus--God absconded! Jesus himself, hanging in agony on the cross, cried out in desperation, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"--"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34).
In the recent terrorist attacks I, too, felt at a loss for words. As I watched almost in shock, there was a kind of God-forsaken, deafening hush even amid the noise of explosions, collapsing buildings, sirens, and a terrified humanity. Suddenly my world held little sense, while my mind frantically searched for answers.
Silence may come when we are at a loss for explanations, and feel abandoned. It can also express a lack of interest. Sometimes when hopes are shattered we lose interest, and lack motivation. We become sick of the whole situation at hand, and grow indifferent. We have seen enough, and desire to walk away from it. The end result is not promising unless something or someone revives our interest. We either grow or we atrophy and die. We may lose interest . . . or seek to find renewed meaning. The silence can become a decisive eye-opener, a catalyst for change.
In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles interprets the silence of God in the Hebrew Scriptures as a kind of revelation. He observes that God creates man in his own image due to a need for self-identity. God wants an image that reflects his very self-image as a way of self-revealing. It is a process--everything unfolding in an ongoing course. Miles makes the observation that although the Scriptures begin with God acting and speaking, they conclude with God's silence when God beholds himself as in an image.
Silence, Miles says, becomes necessary as God and man grow forward in their relationship and understanding of one another. Silence reflects the ambiguities in our relationships, our vulnerability, the reality that as images of God in process, we can be either creative or destructive. God's silence is an invitation to embody the speech of God in our own undertakings, to realize that man has an innate goodness that is essential to a moral universe. Miles writes that as the Hebrew Scriptures end in God's silence, "the mind of God has been objectified in the law, the action of God incarnated in leadership, and now, finally, the voice of God transferred to prayer. David's last prayer is the Lord God's farewell speech. The voice is the voice of the old king, but the desire is the desire of the eternal God." The silence is the open door to do our part, no matter how small. And the fact is, it is largely up to us. As the old adage says, "God helps those who help themselves."
In a time when some people lose hope while others find renewed meaning; when some people show forgiveness while others seek revenge, can we stand in the silence and hear the voice of God intoned in the expressions of solidarity and in the outpouring of sacrifice on the part of countless many, bringing hope and rebuilding out of despair and collapse? Can we accept God's trust?
As Christians, we believe in a loving God who cares for his creation and answers prayers. That is our hope. We pray for God's rule on earth. We envision a renewed world, wherein humanity, in the image and likeness of God, is co-creator with God of a new and better world. Learning to hear the voice of God in the silence is an opportunity for self-revelation. It is an opportunity to see ourselves for who we are--the handiwork of a loving God--and to make a difference in our world. It is the recognition of our greater human prerogative: the right to proclaim and act on our essential goodness as children of the one true God.
O God of all creation, we are still jarred by the violence, and confused by the contradictions of this world. We pray that we may sense your presence in the silence of our souls, and gain a renewal of spirit and life that will spread throughout your earth. Amen.
Rev. Steve Ellis