When have you been in a situation in which you were not able to speak?
In the movie The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family stands reverently around an open grave. Tom Joad makes a request of another man, “Casy, won’t you say a few words?”
Casy says, “I ain’t no more a preacher, you know.”
“We know,” says Tom. “But ain’t none of our folks ever been buried without a few words.”
As a preacher, my work is grounded in saying “a few words” in public and private gatherings, and sometimes much more than a few. At gravesides, in the pulpit, in classrooms, and in counseling sessions, I try to offer words of comfort, inspiration, insight and guidance. As a pastor ordained to ministry of Word and Sacrament, words are at the heart of my vocation.
Much the same was true for “a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah” (Luke 1:5). He served in the temple and led worship there, burning incense while the people prayed. But one day an angel appeared to him, frightening him. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John” (verse 13).
The angel went on to tell him about the child who would grow up to be John the Baptist, and Zechariah was stunned. “How can I be sure of this?” he asked. “My wife and I are very old” (verse 18). The angel assured him that his words would come true, but since Zechariah did not believe these words he would have to “remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen” (verse 20).
Zechariah lost the ability to speak to the people in the temple and to his wife. He had to carry the words of the angel in his heart for the nine long months that Elizabeth carried John inside her. Only when John was born did he regain his ability to speak.
Sometimes we have to wait in silence for God’s work to be done. In the world of social media, people are arguing constantly about hot-button issues. But minds are not changed by argument; instead, they are changed by exposure. Becoming friends with a person of another race can do more to reverse racism than a thousand passionate words. Hearts and minds are changed by companionship, not confrontation.
We also face situations in which we are not able to speak. As a pastor, I have to maintain confidentiality with many members of the church, and I am honored to do so. But all of us are given information that we have to keep secret in order to retain the trust of our family members and friends. When heartfelt words are shared, we are challenged to keep them in our hearts, and not violate trust by gossiping. Silence can be a sign of faithfulness, as we serve a faithful God.
God of silence, help me to watch my words as I wait for you to act. Amen.