Lent II. 

Saint Matthew 15, verse 21 – But he answered her not a word.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

My text today is no text.  God’s word in this verse is no word.  I am going to preach about silence.  To be more precise, when the Gentile woman comes to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter, his reply is to keep silent:  ‘But he answered not a word.’  In this story our Lord does not remain silent, but he begins with silence.  Since Scripture is never without significance, we should ask ourselves what this silence of Jesus means.

In our day literary critics often seem stark raving mad, if they are not merely careerists or con artists.   But one thing the new critics have usefully reminded us all is that the meaning of a story or writing includes not just what it says, but also what it leaves unsaid. 

A few years ago a friend of mine took a summer van trip out west with his five sons and with a friend who brought along his three sons.  After the trip Morgan made each of his boys write a ‘What I did on my summer vacation’ account, with the oldest son helping the youngest – who was too young to write yet.  In due course I was given a copy of the five accounts. 

Now the high point of the trip in four of the accounts was the morning when the two adults and the boys climbed into the van and rode for an hour before discovering that there were seven boys present, not eight.  Philip had been left behind.  Peter, Crawford, Kemp, and Cole all dwelt at some length on this matter of forgetting Philip at the motel.  Philip’s account, however, passed over that particular incident in complete silence.  For anyone who knew what happened, Philip’s silence about it might be interpreted as what literary critics call the ‘presence of the absent’. 

Now sometimes silence is significant and sometimes it is not.  The gospels contain not a word about nuclear reactors or Swiss cheese or the Ming dynasty, but that silence is neither strange nor significant.  But the gospels also are silent about our Lord laughing or smiling.  The gospels tell us that ‘Jesus wept’, that he was sorrowful or groaned, and that he was moved with compassion.  The gospels never say that our Lord laughed.  This absence of our Lord’s laughter is surely significant.  It tells us that our Lord fulfils the words of the prophet Isaiah about God’s Suffering Servant:  ‘He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:  and we hid as it were our faces from him…’ (53:3).  In this case the silence of Scripture is significant.

The most explicit case of Christ’s silence is in the description of his trial in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In all three cases when our Lord first appears before Pontius Pilate, all he says to Pilate is, ‘Thou sayest’ (Matthew 27:11).  Thereafter he is silent.  He says, in effect, ‘You speak, because I am not going to speak.’  And so Pilate and his wife and the chief priests and the mob all speak in the story, but Christ is silent.  Pilate asks him, ‘Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee?’  But our Lord ‘answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly.’ (v. 14)   He answered never a word; he was silent.  And that was a most eloquent silence:  non-resisting, not hateful, not angry, patient, humble, accepting of God’s will without word or complaint. 

Our Lord reminds us earlier in Saint Matthew that he did not have to accept the verdict against himself:  ‘Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?’ (26:53f.)  When our Lord says to Pilate, ‘You speak,’ he is freely accepting divine Providence.  When he is silent in the face of the onslaught of the ‘hour and power of darkness’ (Luke 22:53), he again signals his submission to the Father’s plan of salvation.

So in our lesson today, when our Lord answered the woman not a word, his silence may well be significant.  He does not say to her what later he says to Pilate:  ‘Thou sayest’; ‘You speak.’  Nonetheless, the woman does speak, and indeed it is in the space created by Christ’s silence, both with this woman and later with Pilate, that his will is worked out.  Here our Lord’s silence gives the woman the opportunity to show her love for her daughter, her faith in Christ, and her own wit and resourcefulness.  It is in this case precisely God’s silence that allows the necessary words to be spoken by the woman, and that in turn allows the word of God to be effective for her.

Think of it another way.  Conversation is virtually impossible when the background is a stream of constant and loud noise.  Meaningful conversation requires the space of relative quiet.  Saint John calls our Lord ‘the Word’ by whom all things were made (1:1, 3).  God the Son is the agent of creation and he equally is the power that sustains all creation in being.  If the Word of God were completely silent, then all that is would dissolve into nothingness.  But although the Word of God is constantly uttered, what it creates in part is a world in which you and I are given the power to speak our own words.  God is willing to be silent, or at least to create a relatively quiet space, where we can speak and act and live and exercise our own free will and make our own moral and spiritual decisions.  It is not that God has nothing to say to us.  But he lets us speak too, and then he responds appropriately to our faith and love and wit or, perhaps, to our infidelity and hate and stupidity.  And perhaps sometimes also he seems silent so that he and we can be quiet together and simply commune quietly in love.  God is never utterly silent; but sometimes he speaks to us by seeming to be silent and by listening to us.  So it was with the Gentile woman.  She speaks to Jesus, and he by turns is silent and then speaks and then acts. 

If what you mostly seem to hear from God is his silence, then you should neither be alarmed nor discouraged.  In truth God always is addressing you through the words of Scripture and the book of nature and the music of worship and in a thousand ways.  Sometimes God’s relative silence is his gift of space to you.  What matters, as always, is how you respond, whether to his words or his silences.  We should not be alarmed or discouraged by God’s quiet.  This is an important lesson for us to remember in Lent, which is certainly a time for us to quiet ourselves and listen to God seriously as we prepare for Easter.  We should both persist in prayer, as does the woman of Canaan on behalf of her daughter, and sometimes also take God’s advice in the psalms:  ‘Be still then, and know that I am God.’  In time God’s answers will come, and we are much more likely to hear them then if we have been listening quietly all along.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

5 thoughts on “Lent II sermon

  1. Thank you, your Grace.

    I am reminded by your words, especially in this season, of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”

    “If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
    If the unheard, unspoken
    Word is unspoken, unheard;
    Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
    The Word without a word, the Word within
    The world and for the world;
    And the light shone in darkness and
    Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
    About the centre of the silent Word.

    O my people, what have I done unto thee.

    Where shall the word be found, where will the word
    Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence…”

    Thank you, again.

    Liked by 1 person

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