It was a particularly awkward moment; I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. On Ash Wednesday I attended the service at a college in Oxford known for having priests and monks who were contemplative. In the actual service itself there were the usual words, scriptures, meditation, and then the application of ashes depicting of course preparation for lent as it leads to the Cross, the ashes being taken from palm branches that had been waved the year before – a powerful symbol! It was a time of deep reflection, and the meditation was superb. After we came forward and received the ashes, we were told to leave in peace and quiet. I noticed nobody actually left the building. Everybody just took their seat again in the sanctuary and bowed their heads in silence. I saw that everyone else had decided to be seated, and did likewise. I had no idea what to do with the silence. Surely someone would come and pronounce the Benediction and it would all end, but no, just continued silent prayer. Throughout the whole episode my mind was consumed with “When do I get up?” and “When do I get out?” and would I offend anyone if I did so. Not one moment of real reflection, solitude, and prayer, but terror that I might do the wrong thing! Finally, someone behind me got up and left, and with great relief I left with them. It is ironic that on the very same day in Utah a school child of Catholic tradition had come to school with ashes on their head after the ritual, only to be told by the teacher to remove it, that it was not appropriate to have religious symbols in the school. Eventually, as many of you might have read, the teacher was censured, which made the child feel awkward. On the other hand, there was a great debate about whether something as simple as a smudge of ashes on the forehead representing the Cross was an offense.
I thought these two things were powerful on Ash Wednesday – awkward silence and the offense of the Cross – and nowhere do they come together more than in today’s passage, for it is the trial of Jesus of Nazareth according to Matthew. Now, you might say, “Andrew, why are we looking at the trial so soon in Lent? Why don’t we look at that on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday?” Well, I want us to go to the very end of Jesus’ life, to that trial, because it makes sense of the Lenten period that is still to follow. It makes sense of what Chris was preaching about last Sunday as well because when Jesus was on trial, so much of what constitutes our Christian faith was crystallized. Let’s put it in some perspective, shall we? The trial of Jesus of Nazareth took place at night we are told when members of the Sanhedrin, seventy or so of the religious leaders, decided to get together and put Jesus on trial. Doing so at night was contrary to Jewish law. They performed it in the courtyard of the house of the High Priest, which was large – you could get a lot of people in there – but this again was not the appropriate place for a trial. It was also on the eve of a festival and no legal decisions were to be made on the eve of religious festivals. It was also presuming guilt. It set out to find Jesus guilty rather than the presumption of innocence or the balance of evidence, as we are told. There were at least two witnesses who came forward, but their witness, their testimony, was very strange. They said that Jesus had been claiming that he had the power to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Finally, at the very same event as the trial, they declared a verdict of guilty. Everything was contrary to the Torah and Jewish law. Everything! The whole thing was a sham. It was contrived in such a way that Jesus of Nazareth would be found guilty, but it was contrary, and this is my point, to Jewish law.
There have always been debates about whether Jesus of Nazareth was innocent or guilty of the charges laid against him, either in this part of the trial or later on when Pilate, on behalf of the Romans, had Jesus appear before him and put on trial. Historically, Christianity has said that Jesus was innocent, like “a lamb led to the slaughter”, brought before his accusers, not guilty of any of the charges made against him, for how could he be? He was the Messiah, the Son of God. But a very clever American jurist and social justice advocate, William Stringfellow, has argued that Jesus was guilty of the charges against him. In fact, Jesus was guilty of what was considered blasphemy. Why? Stringfellow argues, because the entire ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was pointing to the unique relationship he had with the Father. He was talking about the unique relationship he had with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In all of the Gospels Jesus performed miracles and healings. Jesus was able to forgive sins. Jesus was able to honour his Father in heaven; to speak as one with authority; to question the religious leaders of the day and their motivation. By all of their standards Jesus was blasphemous.
As William Stringfellow says, “That is true if it applied to anyone else other than Jesus himself.” In other words, if you or I were to make the claims, then absolutely we are blasphemous! If we say that what we say is speaking on behalf of the Heavenly Father with all authority and with all power and that God and we are one, and that we have all authority as to move mountains, we are indeed guilty of blasphemy! But, as Stringfellow points out, this was the Son of God. This was the One who was one with the Father and the Spirit! This was the Messiah! So while in earthly terms he might have been found guilty, he actually was innocent. They didn’t know who they were dealing with. It was the same with Pilate who accused Jesus of sedition, of undermining Roman power, of being a threat to the security of the state. Jesus was seen as a revolutionary, and in a sense he was. To the Romans who were practicing tyranny and exploitation of the weak, taking taxes from the poor, subjugating the people of Israel, and belittling the religious leaders of the day, Jesus was a threat. He was guilty. But as the Apostle Paul rightly said, “All earthly powers are ultimately subject to him” therefore he is innocent. It is not Pilate who should be putting the Son of God on trial; it is the Son of God who should be putting Pilate on trial. You see Stringfellow’s argument? It is brilliant! The whole thing rests on who and what Jesus is and the power that he has. Sure, by human laws and understanding, what Jesus said and did seemed wrong, but in the eyes of God the Father in the purposes of salvation, Jesus was innocent because of who he was.
This leads us to the trial itself and seminal moments in it. I think one of the central things that grabbed me after my experience at Oxford was this: Jesus remained silent before his accusers. He didn’t say a mumblin’ word! Why did Jesus not say when he was being accused by the two false witnesses, “I am innocent” or “I didn’t do it.”? Why did he remain silent? Because the charges were absurd! They were not even worthy of a response. Not even to give an account of one’s self on the basis of how incredibly absurd the things that were being said about him were! Had he risen to a defense of what had never happened, then Jesus himself would have been caught up in the rhetoric and the ridiculousness of the trial. Jesus remained silent.
But there was something more going on here. Jesus was very evidently aware that he was the fulfillment of the prophesy of the suffering servant in the Book of Isaiah. Many of you will be familiar with that passage, but some of you may not. It is where the prophet talks about one who would come from God and was in fact the Saviour. From Isaiah 53, there is a section here, and you can’t help but read Jesus into this: “He was oppressed; he was afflicted; yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, like a sheep that before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice, he was taken away. Who could imagine his future, for he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth.” Jesus was acutely aware that he was the fulfillment of that prophesy. If you don’t think that alone is enough, at the very beginning of his ministry, as I preached about a few weeks ago, Jesus stood in the Temple and read aloud from the Prophet Isaiah that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to proclaim good news to the poor. Then he said at the end of that incredible passage, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus therefore was acutely aware that his whole ministry was to follow in the silent suffering of the servant of God. Any defense of himself at that point, any words that he would have spoken, would have been absurd and validated the claims against him.
It is also true that while his silence was deafening, when he did speak, his words had more power. In other words, when we hold our tongue, when we actually do speak, there is real authority and power behind it. I love the story of Socrates, who was approached by a young man who wanted to become an orator. He said to Socrates, “Can you teach me, Master, how to be an orator?” Socrates agreed, and this young man came to his classes and did nothing but talk all the time. Finally, at the end of the classes Socrates sent him a bill for twice as much. The young man said, “Why are you charging me double for all of this?”
Socrates said, “First, you have to learn the science of holding the tongue before you learn the science of using it.”
Brilliant advice! Some politicians should follow that! First, hold your tongue, and then you speak. Jesus did that. When Caiaphas started to pin him down and said, “I want you to swear now, swear now.....”, so that means Jesus felt obliged to tell the truth, “Are you the Son of God?”
Jesus says brilliantly, “Yes, it is as YOU say.” Jesus never came out at that point and declared himself to be the Messiah and the Son of God; he got the very accusers to say it themselves. The accusers, in pointing the finger, were pointing it back at themselves. They belittled him, and in belittling him they declared who he really was. Now, I hear it said that Jesus never said anywhere that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, and it is all made up, which of course is nonsense. Jesus’ entire ministry from the very beginning of his baptism right through to the empty tomb is an incredible statement of his messiah-ship. He didn’t need to go around telling everyone “I am the Messiah”. In fact, he even got Caiaphas to do it for him, such was the power of Jesus of Nazareth! When he spoke, it was with authority, and he said, “The Son of Man will come on clouds of glory.”
What are we to make of all of this? This was a powerful moment in Jesus’ ministry. There is no doubt about it. The power of silence was deafening! When he spoke it was prophetic. He got others to do the speaking for him. He did not speak on his own behalf, but remained silent. In that silence there was power, humility, and love. Jesus knew he had all power to bring down on these people. He knew he could have moved mountains and made many a life a misery, but he didn’t. He took the false accusations and he humbled himself to take the form of a servant, like Isaiah. He also did it in the power of silence, and at times I think our faith and religion is linked up too much to words. I say this as a preacher. Sometimes, our words are not what are needed, but our silent devotion. For those who made the accusations against Jesus they had all the words, but they did not know who he was. They had what they thought was the knowledge of the law, although they didn’t obey it. They thought they had Jesus cornered, but their words failed them, and often they fail us too.
A couple of weeks ago, I was on a train in the UK, and on some of them they have what are called a “quiet train”. I love those because you can read on them. I got on one, and after a few minutes a man on his cell phone was chatting away, which is not allowed. He was having quite the conversation with his stockbroker! Everyone could hear it. He was a bit of an idiot as an investor, by the way. A woman finally had the courage to go over to him and say, “Excuse me, sir. This is a quiet coach. Would you please refrain from talking?”
He replied, “But, ma’am, this is very important.”
She said, “Yes, and the silence of my own thoughts are important too.”
The great Henri Nouwen in his wonderful piece The Way of the Heart speaks, about the noisy world that we live in and how we do not take time to listen to God wrote this, and it is just brilliant:
Over the last decade, we have been inundated by a torrent of words. Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, angrily screamed, words spoken, recited or sung, words on records and books, on walls and in the sky, words of many sounds, many colours, many forms. Words can be heard, read, seen, glanced at. Words which flicker on and off a screen, move slowly, dance, jump, wiggle. Words, words, words, words! They form the floor, walls and ceiling or our existence!
Recently, I was driving through Los Angeles and suddenly I had the strange sensation of driving through a huge dictionary. Wherever I looked there were words trying to take my eyes from the road. They said: “use me”, “take me”, “buy me”, “drink me”, “smell me”, “kiss me”, “touch me”, “sleep with me”! In such a world, who can maintain respect for words? One of our main problems is that in this chatty society silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence as not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow. For them, silence is like a gaping abyss, which can swallow them up. As soon as a minister says during a worship service “Let us be silent for a few moments”, people tend to become restless and preoccupied with only one thought: when will this be over?
Just as I felt in Oxford!
There is power in silence. And before the awesomeness of God, before the wonder of Christ, before his overwhelming love and forgiveness, maybe a true faith is a faith that is silent, in awe and in gratitude. Believe-you-me, that silence can be deafening! Amen.