Noisy Silence – the Christmas Paradox
Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable silence can be? Ever wonder why that is?
I suppose it’s partly because it’s unfamiliar. We lead very loud lives and nearly every corner is filled with some kind of rumble or roar, a bell or a beep. Silence is a sign that something’s broken, that our phone dropped the call or a cable came unplugged.
I suppose it’s also uncomfortable because silence isn’t silent…it’s the sound of a ticking clock, the sound of missed opportunities and wasted time. We’re doers. We have to be, don’t we? Ever since Adam and Eve brought on the thorns and the thistles, we’ve been running as hard as we can just to keep from falling behind. Silence reminds us just how far behind we’ve fallen.
Oh sure, we say that silence is golden, but let’s be honest: it feels more like copper or tin, doesn’t it? Useful at times, but not really what you’d call valuable.
And yet silence is the territory of truth. You see, lies are always loud.
Think about it. Those who speak loudest and brashest are, more often than not, those who speak falsely. And of course, there is no one louder than a liar defending himself against an accusation of lying.
Lies are always loud. They have to be, almost by definition. There’s really no such thing as an unspoken lie. Lies have to be spoken, they have to be sold. They have to be loud. You see, truth can be suppressed…for a time. Truth-speakers can be shushed…for a while. But truth has a disconcerting tendency of rising to the surface. And so lies always have to be louder. They have to be loud enough to distract us from truth.
So lies are always loud. But sometimes, the louder the lie, the more profound the truth it’s trying to hide.
Christmas is loud. Honking horns in the parking lots and Bing Crosby on the PA system and choir concerts and Frosty and Rudolph. It’s garish. It’s silver and gold with blue-light specials and red-tag sales all designed to keep retailers in the black. It smells funny. A potpourri of cinnamon and pine and vanilla and sugar and fruit and spice…sort of like a Bath and Body Works exploded. It’s busy. There are gifts to be bought and lights to be hung and cookies to be baked. Christmas is full of distractions. Christmas is loud. Which raises the question: is it possible that Christmas is so loud because someone is trying to cover something up?
What is the truth of Christmas? You know, it’s not a bad idea to take a moment right now and jot down the answer to that question. If you’re like me, you often get to the end of the Christmas season and wish you had spent more time contemplating the true meaning of Christmas. So let’s not miss any opportunity. Take a moment right now. Grab a piece of paper or an open space on the edge of a page of your Bible and answer this question: what is the truth of Christmas?
You know, there’s lots of different ways to answer that question, but if you said something about Jesus, you’re probably on the right track. But of course, Jesus is the one thing that is most likely to get missed in Christmas. How can that be?
How can we as a culture leave Jesus out of the meaning of Christmas? How could we possibly forget about Jesus? Well, maybe it’s because the Christmas season is loud enough to distract us even from a truth as profound as the incarnation. On the other hand, the incarnation has always been a little tough to get a handle on.
That’s as true for us today as it was for those who were there at the first Christmas.
I’m not sure if that first Christmas was really silent, but I do know that it was preceded by a silence.
God’s people had a problem. They were a people enslaved. First to the Babylonians, then to the Persians, then to the Greeks. The Ptolemies in Egypt and the Selucids in Syria and now, the Romans. Israel was not free.
That’s a problem for any group of people, but for the Jewish people the difficulty was worse because they were Israel…the people of God. They were the descendents of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The inheritors of the Promised Land. They were the heirs of the covenant that promised that so long as they were obedient to God, their nation would be free. But they were not free…and that was a problem.
As is so often the case, different people responded differently. One group, known as the Zealots, favored rebellion, guerilla warfare, striking back at the cursed Gentile pigs who dared to occupy Israel. They used to sneak up behind Roman soldiers in crowds and slit their throats. Barabbas, the murderer that was spared the cross so that Jesus could take his place on it…Barabbas was a Zealot.
Another group decided that the Romans weren’t really so bad. This group accommodated, they made concessions. They decided that, if Israel was to be a great nation, they would have to do it themselves. They had money, power and privilege, so why not? They called themselves the Sadducees.
A third group decided that the problem wasn’t with God or with the Romans. The problem was with Israel itself. It was a corrupt nation, full of sin and idolatry. The only hope was to start fresh…to withdraw from the rest of “God’s people” and start over. And so they did. They moved out into the desert and got serious about righteousness. They were called the Essenes.
There was a final group. Like the Essenes, they believed that the problem was with Israel. God could not be expected to bless His people when they were so disobedient. The only possible solution was a return to obedience. And so they set themselves to making sure everyone knew exactly what God required. God says rest on the Sabbath? Right then…here’s how many steps you can take before you’ve broken the commandment. You can’t die cloth on the evening before the Sabbath because the ink will still be soaking into the cloth when the Sabbath starts and that would mean that you’re working on the Sabbath. That might sound silly, but the motivation’s not so bad is it? Helping God’s people know exactly what to do to be obedient to God’s commands?
All four groups were responding to this problem, this unacceptable subjugation of God’s people to a foreign empire. All four groups were quite vehement, they were forceful, they were…well, they were loud.
The problem was…while they were busy being loud, God was silent. He had been silent for almost four hundred years. Oh, there had been the occasional short message, the occasional small miracle. Prayers were still answered and hearts were still stirred. But the days of Moses, the days in which awe-inspiring prophets like Isaiah and Ezekial thundered God’s words across the land…those days were gone. The Jews called it the silent years, the four hundred years since the last of the great prophets. God spoke through Malachi and then…silence.
But silence isn’t always a sign of inactivity. Anyone who has spent any time at all with small children knows that. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean that your children have fallen into angelic slumber. It might just as easily mean that they have gotten the cat into the dryer and are trying to figure out how to turn it on.
So which kind of silence was this? The silence of inactivity or the calm before the storm, the drawing of a breath before…
Before what? Well, we know, but they didn’t. How could they have known? The silent years weren’t silent, they were the breeding ground of a truth so astonishing that no one could possibly have anticipated it:
In the beginning was the Word
And the word was with God
And the Word was God
He was with God in the beginning
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
(from John 1)
Maybe it’s just as well that they didn’t know what was coming. What good would knowing have done? How could they possibly have prepared for that? Changing the sheets, shampooing the carpets, stocking the pantry…all good things, but hardly suitable preparations for the arrival of the Almighty.
What could you possibly do? What preparations could possibly be suitable? Maybe it’s better that they didn’t know then. Maybe it’s better that He came upon them unaware and shocked them all.
Certainly the Pharisees were shocked into incomprehension. Jesus wasn’t so worried about the Pharisee’s Sabbath rules…because he was the Lord of the Sabbath. Righteousness wasn’t obtained by crossing your religious t’s and dotting your spiritual i’s. But it was all about an “I”. “I,” he said “I am the way, the truth and the life…no one comes to the Father but through me.” The Pharisees couldn’t hear him because they were deafened by the noise of their rules and regulations.
The Essenes weren’t ready for him either. Jesus didn’t seem to mind our mess. He didn’t turn away in disgust at our sin, our corruption, our failures. He waded into our muck. He ate with sinners…well, maybe we shouldn’t call them sinners but incipient saints. He did not withdraw from sinners…he transformed them. The Essenes couldn’t hear him because they were deafened by the noise of their self-righteousness and judgments.
The Sadducees didn’t get it. He didn’t accommodate to the culture or toss out the word of God. He wasn’t interested in power or prestige. He didn’t care if he rocked the boat and raised a ruckus. The Sadducees couldn’t hear him because they were deafened by the noise of their positions and possessions and plans.
And what could be more shocking to the Zealots than this: God’s response to the oppression of his people…was an infant. Unable to hold a sword or a knife or even to feed himself. Oh, he grew up, sure…but those hands never took up a sword. The closest that he ever came to rebellion was when he took a rebel’s place on the cross…when he took a rebel’s punishment. The Zealots couldn’t hear him because they were deafened by the noise of their anger.
They all missed it. In the fact, the only ones who really heard him were the ones least expected to: shepherds, pagan astrologers, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the outcast, the unloved and the unlovable…sinners. They heard him. They were ready.
And now, twenty centuries later, we come to that time of the year that has been set aside to remember God’s love demonstrated to us in the birth of Christ. And I wonder: are we ready? Are we ready to meet Christ this Christmas?
Understand, he wants to meet you. He came all the way from heaven to earth…he became one of us for the sole purpose of rescuing us from our sin. He wants to be with us. He wants to meet you where you are. What would keep you from meeting with him?
Maybe you’re like the Zealots. You’re angry. Maybe someone’s hurt you, or maybe you’re just frustrated. But you’re so caught up in lashing out that you’ve forgotten that he came to bring peace…
Maybe you’re like the Sadducees. So convinced that you can do it on your own that there’s no room for God to step in and do what only He can do…
Maybe you’re like the Essenes. So full of righteous indignation that you can no longer look on the lost with his eyes, with his compassion…
Maybe you’re like the Pharisees. So caught up in rules and regulations that you’ve forgotten that what Jesus wants is a relationship…
Or maybe, you’re just so busy with all the stuff of Christmas…or just all the stuff of life…with all the noise, that you just can’t hear him. If that’s you, then let me suggest three R’s to help you get your heart ready for Christ this Christmas:
Remember what it’s all about. And the best way to do that is to turn Christmas traditions into standing stones. Instead of hanging all the ornaments on the tree as quickly as possible have each family member place them one at a time and with each ornament, say “This ornament is to remind us that God did [fill in the blank] for us this year.” As you hear Christmas songs on the PA in the mall, stop for a minute and just think about the words. There are a million reminders of what Christmas is all about…just let them do their job this year.
The key to a good reflection is a smooth surface. No pond reflects the glory of the creation that surrounds it unless it is calm. So bring some calm into your life this Christmas. Get up a little earlier or go to bed a little later. Adopt the old Norwegian tradition that all Christmas traditions must be finished by Dec. 21 so you’ll have time to reflect on the meaning of it all in those last few days.
Let all the noise remind you of the truth it’s trying to hide. Remember that the louder the lie the more profound the truth it’s trying to distract you from. Redeem things you’re already doing. Do you bake cookies? Bake and extra dozen and take them to your neighbors with a Christmas card. Do you make a huge meal on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Make just a little more and take it as a family to someone who doesn’t have much…or invite them over to your house to celebrate Christ’s birth with you and your family.
Remember, reflect and redeem…and in the process, cut through all the noise to a truth so big that it didn’t need to be shouted, so profound that it didn’t need to be heralded: God loves you so much that He sent his one and only Son to meet you where you are and to move you to where He longs for you to be…in an eternal relationship with God Almighty Himself. No matter how loud Christmas is, it can never quite obscure the anxious silence of heaven as God draws in a breath to sing His love-song to you.
Listen to an audio recording of this message here:
 Standing stones were used by the Israelites to remember God’s faithfulness. They set up stacks of stones that, when seen, reminded people of God’s provision.