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Good Friday: In the Silence

By William H. Willimon
"Pastor do you realize what an unfriendly church you have? Not one person spoke a word to me as I visited your Chapel this Sunday," the visitor complained on his way out the door after service.

I would usually reply, "The place is full of visitors everybody around you was probably a visitor too," or "Sorry, but academic people are not that friendly" or something lame like that.

But thank God I had the insight to reply, "But did God speak to you? That's the question."

Do you recall how we began this forty-day journey called Lent? In the wilderness, First Sunday of Lent, with Jesus, alone. In the desert, deserted Jesus met Satan. Perhaps it was only in loneliness that Satan could get to Him, solitude and silence. You know how it is when we are alone, quiet.

When the music stops and there is no one to distract or speak, there speaks the Tempter. Reality abhors a vacuum. Every pause is pregnant. Satan, confronting Jesus in the wilderness, in the silence, attempted to fill the emptiness of the moment with bread, power, glory. Jesus refused the temptation to fulfill.

We satiate our silences with sound -- elevator music, Muzak, pumped in to fill the void.

"How come the music is so loud in the Ratskeller?" the student asked.

I instructed, "So that you will never be made uncomfortable by having to make conversation with anybody."

Have you noticed how, when we're at Sunday worship, when there's a break, a gap in the action, we preachers tend to talk? Silence makes clergy uneasy. "Dead air" is how they speak of it in TV.

Some churches therefore make sure that a preacher is talking, or an organ is being played at every moment in a service, so threatening is silence on Sunday. We clergy can't allow gaps, unfilled space, for then God might slip in and then, well, where would we be?

When Jesus stood this afternoon before Pilate's court and Pilate demanded that Jesus make a defense for Himself, Jesus said nothing. There was silence, a great gap in the proceedings. And in the silence, Pilate's nervous mocking: "Are you then, 'King' of the Jews?"

"No one has called Me 'King' but you," says Jesus.

"And He never said a mumblin' word," sings the spiritual. Not a word. He who was such a preacher, refused at the last to speak. And His silence is revealing, even damning. That's when we did the talking, "Crucify Him!" or, "Let His blood be upon us and our children," or "If you are the Son of God, save yourself." It's in silences that the voices come, the accusing, honest, inner voices that the Muzak seeks to squelch.

They whisper, "I know what you did last summer." "You should have spoken up." "Why did you lie?" "How dare you?" "You are not the person others think you are."

A psychiatrist told me that in some forms of mental illness it's as if that monitor in the front part of our brain that silences the dark painful messages loosens its grip over our consciousness, thus enabling suppressed, long buried voices to speak into our brains. And it just drives us crazy.

Well, tonight is a time -- in the silence, in beginning a service with confession, in rallying around the blood of the cross -- to let the voices have their say. It takes a certain sort of guts, borne upon a certain sort of grace, to have the courage to sit in the silence.

I've had youth ministers tell me that one of their cardinal rules, when taking teenagers on a church retreat, is to demand that they disconnect. They make the kids go cold turkey with media -- no Walkman, no radio. They say they must build in about twenty-four hours for media detoxification in which the kids go through a kind of withdrawal. Then, the teenagers begin to talk, begin to listen to one another, and the Spirit starts to work its way.

I'm impressed that you are so willing to be silenced, alone, and to let the Spirit work its way on this night of nights. A few words will be said, but not enough to explain much or give you satisfying answers. Then we shall end this service in silence, utter silence. You will scurry away quickly into the dark. Just as Jesus' disciples, after dinner last night, fled into the dark when the soldiers came for Jesus.

Silence takes courage, in a world where there are so many artificial means of making music and filling the void. Lent is a season for confession, repentance, honesty and candid self-examination. Jesus is going this night to do His work. Now, in the silence, in the aloneness, we have our work to do as well. The voices, within and without, so frequently suppressed, now can be heard.

It takes guts to sit in such silence. How is that possible for people such as ourselves? Amid the deafening, accusing silence of this night, His words come back to us, words we cannot forget, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."
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