Here’s a good rule of thumb I’ve picked up along the way: “Any man who must say ‘I am king,’ is no true king at all.”
Somebody oughta tell that to Pilate.
When Pilate asked the question of Jesus — “Are you the king?” he certainly knew what answer he expected to hear. He expected a denial. He expected Jesus to know that if Jesus claimed to be king then it would be an automatic death sentence. Pilate’s entire purpose in Jerusalem was to ensure that the only person that anyone called king was Herod - and to make sure that Herod that the king’s only Lord was Caesar. Pilate knew that Jesus knew Pilate’s reputation - he had viciously suppressed rebels and revolutionaries in the past. If Jesus claimed to be king, he’d have to fight for it. And if he had planned to fight, he would have brought an army. If Jesus cared at all for his life, and for whatever religious movement he was starting, the only sensible answer was no.
But Jesus did not deny it. And he did not argue. He only said “You have said so,” as if Pilate was a witness, or as if Jesus couldn’t be bothered with the charge, and then Jesus went silent.
The apostle John, when he describes the scene, shares another detail to show Pilate’s amazement.
Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?
Jesus is silent, and Pilate is amazed. And for the first time, Pilate suspects that any man who must say “I’m in charge” is not as in charge as it seems.
When the people of God have listened for the heart of God, they have often heard a kind of silence. It is not a dark silence that leaves us lost and directionless, it can be a silence that is too deep for words, the silence that is made possible by light, the kind of silence that makes watching a sunrise or sunset more powerful and not less.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the great prophet Elijah who was running from the threats and curses that Queen Jezebel was shouting against him. Elijah ran into the desert, he ran all the way to a lonely mountain where he hid in a cave, and it was there in the cave that Elijah felt brave enough to shout to God “My heart has burned for you, and I begged your people to be faithful. But they’ve destroyed everything and now they want to destroy me!”
And God said, “come out, for I am going to bring my glory to this mountain.” And then a strong wind blew outside the cave, and then an earthquake shook the cave, and then a fire raged outside the cave. But Elijah, for all that he didn’t know, he knew that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. it was only after… Oh, I love how the Common English Bible translates it:
“After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out, and stood at the cave’s entrance.”
The bible is full of examples of faithful people who discovered the heart of God when they listened in the thin, quietude of their own silence - Job, Zechariah, Gamaliel, Jesus’ own mother Mary. In the book of Revelation John the Visionary tell us that after he saw the trials of this world, and after he saw the triumph of the saints, and after he saw the worship of the courts of heaven — then he saw the Lamb open a seventh and final scroll of promise and he saw it bring… thirty minutes of silence. The great victory of Jesus passed through the silence of the grave, and the final victory of the new creation will pass through its own silence as heaven and earth pass away, and a new day dawn.
Richard Foster, one of the last century’s greatest teachers in prayer says that silence lies at the heart of every spiritual discipline. Silence is a kind of fasting - a fasting from the need to prove ourselves to God or others, a fasting from the words we use to fill our ears with emptiness rather than the presence of God. And indeed, if you want to experience the heart of God, you can start looking almost anywhere.
And you can bring silence with you in almost everything. Practicing a fast from words does not mean going through life entirely mute — when Jesus stood before Pilate, he spoke before going silent. And before the Sanhedrin, Jesus was silent before speaking.
There are many ways to practice silence.
You can practice silence by fasting from having the last word. For one day, could it be enough for you to share your heart, and then be silent as someone else shares their own?
Silence matters just as much at your beginnings as it does at your endings. Michael Hyatt, once the publisher of Billy Graham, Max Lucado, and Charles Stanley - says he begins every day with 20 minutes of silence - he climbs out of bed, sits in a chair that is just straight enough he won’t fall asleep, and sits in silence for 20 minutes before he opens his bible to read and to pray.
Silence can even be a cooperative gift right in the middle of things. One of the most grace-full meals I ever experienced was in the middle of a 24-hour silent retreat I took at the beginning of my ministry. We were all sitting around a family-style supper, and it turns out you have to pay closer attention to one another when your neighbor can’t interrupt you to ask for more potatoes. You have to be aware of one another, you have to look out for one another. It was not a long meal, but the memory of it has lasted 13 years.
Silence is like salt and it is like light; if you make even a tiny space for it, it can change everything. It lies at the heart of all the ways we walk with God.
Mother Teresa was once asked what she prayed when she prayed to God; she said “I listen.” Then she was asked what God says to her; she replied, “He listens. I can’t explain it to you better than that.” If you know much of Mother Teresa’s testimony you know that she experienced long periods of spiritual dryness and difficulty - and yet the universal testimony of those who knew her is that her presence helped them trust the presence of God. Her knowledge of the silence of God brought God's light to others. Chuck Swindoll, reflecting on her prayers of silence once wrote: “I do not believe anyone can become a deep person and intimate with God without stillness and silence.
And yet we live in an age that wars against silence. I suspect every age has resisted silence, but every day the conflict escalates as the forces of noise continue an arms race that is even more profitable and sophisticated than the wildest dreams of Lockheed-Martin. It’s not only that we find it hard to turn off the background noise — of music, radio, television, streaming video and podcasts — it’s that even when we tune out all the audible messages, we find that that the visual world has become noisy too. Even when it’s silent, the world is trying to get our ear. Between billboards, clothing slogans, car decals and labels, and the branded packaging that surrounds us in every story, marketing agencies consistently find that we are exposed - by a conservative estimate - to 5,000 impersonal messages a day. That’s before we consider how many words are shouted, whispered, or subliminally slipped into our minds by the people we actually know in real life or our second lives on Facebook, Insta, Twitter, and Snap.
Even so, I believe underneath all that is a quiet, thin sound, still calling us to know the presence of God. Even as words have multiplied and piled on each other until they are all reduced to noise, we have also been learning that sometimes an image can say so much more than words. How many text messages have I sent that could have been better summed up with a single emoji? Some images are even more powerful than a message.
And, as it turns out, the Bible says that we are made in God’s image. And the gospel says that Christ became like us, and in Him the “Word became flesh, and we have seen his glory,” and then it says that “no one has ever seen God, but Jesus Christ has made him known.”
So as I close this sermon today, we are going to do something a little different. I am going to read just a bit of the scripture that we have already heard. And this time, I am going to ask you to close your eyes. I’m going to ask you not to listen to the scripture, but to see it. See Jesus, standing there.
And when I’m done, we will just keep watching, with our eyes closed, for two minutes, in silence. Keep your heart fixed on Jesus. Don’t even ask what lesson you should take, or what message he has for you. His message is himself. He is offering you himself. There may be nothing for you to do but marvel.
And that’s ok. It would have been nice if Pilate had marveled a little longer. He spoke too quickly; he was afraid of the presence of Jesus and afraid of the silence. We can sympathize, for we are often afraid of silence, most especially because it is too much like death. But if we will learn to fix our eyes on Jesus, we can have this promise: even in the silence of death, Christ stands with you. His presence is enough to see you through with confidence if you will only look to him.
When we see him truly, without excuses, without evasions, without demands, we discover what our words are good for. In heaven, they are not silent. In heaven, every word from every tongue proclaims what Jesus will not say for himself. “You are king! You are Lord!”
Let us marvel in silence, so that we may praise Him in truth.