Evangelizing in God’s First Language

Listen to sermon here: Evangelizing in God’s First Language

Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm 62:6-14

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

This sermon was preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on January 22, 2012.

“For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him.”

The great evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham tells of a time early in his career when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon.  Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy told him, Rev. Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven.” The boy said, “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know your way to the post office.”

The story reminds me of times when I was a Youth Minister, speaking of lofty and spiritual things to the youth while almost getting us all lost on the way to mini-golf. Whenever we attempt to answer the call to evangelize (to share the Gospel), we are often brought face to face with our humanity and limitations. We need all the help we can get and the readings this morning actually offer some help by presenting us with a colorful variety of ways to evangelize or, as the Collect says, to answer readily the call of our Saviour and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.[1]

Jonah, fresh out of the belly of a big fish, uses a very terse, fire-and-brimstone method, saying simply to the Ninevites, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be no more” (In Hebrew, its only five words: “Od arbaim yom, ynineveh nehpachet”).[2] In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, there is an urgent exhortation to let go of what is familiar in order to embrace what is to come, even if that means sexual abstinence within marriage. And in the Gospel, Jesus proclaims good news, saying “The time is now. The kingdom is near”; and then, with concise imperatives: “Repent. Believe. Follow me,” he incites immediate responses from his listeners, who leave even familial attachments to follow him. All these methods may have their place in evangelism: fire-and brimstone preaching, urgent exhortations and the proclamation of news so good that it demands leaving even our family. But the evangelistic method that I want to explore and advocate this morning is one described in the Psalm, which reads, “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him.” Evangelizing through patient silence. Using patient silence before, after and during our proclamation of the good news.

All major world religions uphold the sacred power of silence and its necessity for spiritual growth and our Christian tradition is certainly no exception. The great theologian Meister Eckhart said, “Nothing in creation is so like God as silence” and Saint John of the Cross said, “Silence is God’s first language.”

The Bible suggests practicing patient silence before proclaiming God’s message. We cannot speak words of truth, much less proclaim the Gospel, unless we first listen. And it is in intentional silence that we can truly listen to ourselves, to others and to God.  By practicing patient silence as a regular spiritual discipline, we grow more attuned to the message that God has for us and the message that God wants to speak through us to others. Silence and solitude are absolutely integral to Christian spirituality as well as essential to effective evangelism. Although this can be seen clearly in the lives of saints throughout church history, we only have to look again at today’s readings to see the necessity for patient silence prior to evangelism. Jonah preached only after three days and three nights of silence and dark solitude in the belly of a great fish.[3] And although Paul started preaching and evangelizing immediately after his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, his initial evangelism was not successful. Paul’s evangelism and missionary activity did not really take off until 14 years later, after his conversion and baptism and after a decade and a half of preparation. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that Paul actually travelled to Mt. Sinai during this preparation period and remained there for a substantial amount of time, meditating in silence and solitude.[4] And of course, even Jesus did not proclaim the good news until after spending 40 days in the silence and solitude of the Palestinian deserts. The verse immediately preceding our Gospel passage today reads, “[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” (Mark 1:13). Jonah, Paul, and Jesus proclaimed a message that was forged out of silence and solitude, and that silence and solitude clearly held enormous challenges for all of them: the belly of a fish, wild beasts, desert aridity, satanic temptations.

Clearly, intentional silence and solitude are very difficult for us to practice because it is in silence that we often face our own wild beasts and dark shadows. French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit alone, quietly, in a room.” Silence is hard, but in order to evangelize without pushing our own agendas or projecting our own problems onto others, we need to practice intentional silence. Otherwise, our evangelism can easily cause more damage than good and desecrate the name of Christ rather than boldly proclaim his good news. By practicing patient silence, we can learn to say the right thing at the right time to the right person.[5]

When we make attempts to evangelize, forged in silence or not, the invitation to patient silence remains, even after we proclaim the good news. The Bible suggests practicing patient silence after proclaiming God’s message. The first sermon I preached at my home parish was on the parable of the mustard seed. At the time, I was a Youth Minister and the parable really encouraged me as I was “planting seeds” in the souls of young people. Although I tried to speak a message to the youth, forged out of my own discipline of silence, I still found it very hard to see fruits of my labor. The youth were not always very responsive or even present. And when they were, they mostly just wanted to play dodge ball or video games, which fortunately I also loved to do. Sometimes I would try to experiment with what is called “contemplative youth ministry” and invite us to practice brief moments of silence together. It worked some times with the older kids, but trying to keep silence with junior highers for more than 10 seconds was like trying to fit Jonah’s big fish into a ziplock bag. It was not very possible, especially with this particular group of junior highers.

A few months ago, however, I visited my home parish and had the chance to see some of the youth that I once ministered to. I saw that one of those “mustard seeds” that I had planted years ago had turned into a tree, and I mean that in more ways than one because he is almost a foot taller than me now. This particular kid, named Christian, was always the most rowdy and out-of-control during youth group. We had kept in touch through facebook and I could see by his updates that he continued to remain pretty rowdy and out-of-control. But after catching up, we walked over to a nearby meditation hall with another friend and there we decided to sit in prayerful silence for 10 minutes, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. And 10 minutes is a long time for anyone to sit in intentional silence. So you can imagine how encouraged I was to see Christian, who two years ago couldn’t be silent for more than 10 seconds, remain present to the silence for 10 minutes!

I had been holding him and the other youth of the church in my own prayerful silences throughout the years and by doing so, I was giving God the space to grow the seeds that I had planted. And I had the great opportunity to see God’s fruit in him. By waiting patiently in silence for God to work and grow in Christian, I was able to sit in that same patient silence with him, where both of us could listen to God’s message to us as well as to the message that God wanted to speak through us.

So we evangelize through silence, by practicing silence and solitude before we proclaim the good news so that our message is inspired by God and not by our own agendas. And we practice silence after we proclaim the good news in order to give God the space to grow the seeds we planted. Finally, we use patient silence during evangelism to the point that our patient silence is our evangelism. We evangelize through silence by simply listening to others, listening empathetically to their stories, their joys and sorrows and thus embody Christ by emptying ourselves and simply offering a listening ear and a silent mouth. St. Francis understood the power of evangelism through silence when he said, “Preach the Gospel always, use words only when necessary.” By practicing silence before, after and during evangelism, we give God the space to speak through us to say the right thing at the right time to the right person, even if what we say involves no words.[6]

And so I encourage us all to continue to respond to the call to evangelize, not necessarily through fire-and-brimstone preaching, but by practicing intentional silence, and remaining open in that silence to God’s message for us and to the message that God wants to speak through us. I invite us all (certainly including myself) to practice just 10 minutes of intentional silence each day this week. Although ten minutes might not sound like a lot of time, it is really not easy; it is actually a very challenging invitation. And in that silence, I invite us to remain open to God’s message for us and to the message that God wants to speak through us. Pascal, who said, “All of man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit alone, quietly, in a room,” implies the difficulty of silence as do today’s readings: “[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Although we may face our own wild beasts and dark shadows and temptations in our silence, the angels will attend to us and God will speak to us, maybe not in words, but in his first language, which accordin g to St. John of the Cross, is silence. “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Amen.

[1] The word evangelism comes from the Greek euaggellion which means “good news” or the “Gospel.” To “evangelize” means to “proclaim the Gospel,” so in a sense, we Episcopalians “evangelize” every Sunday when we read and proclaim the Gospel, as which we just did. I’m using the word “evangelize” here more as what we are doing when we respond to the Great Commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20)

[2] Although Jonah predates the Gospel of Jesus Christ (euaggellion) and therefore cannot be “evangelizing,” he is still proclaiming God’s message to a people.

[3] Although it actually might not have been all that silent in the fish’s belly, Jonah was still forced to sit alone and face himself.

[4] Wright, N.T. “Paul, Arabi and Elijah (Galatian 1:17)” in Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 115, 683–692.

[5] At the same time, God will still use our attempts at evangelism for good, even if they are not forged out of habitual silence and solitude. More than a decade ago, I used to engage in sidewalk evangelism in upstate New York, passing out little Christian tracts with my brother, explaining the four spiritual laws to people walking by. Although I don’t do that anymore (and if I did, the Episcopal Church would probably disown me), I’d like to think that God still used those attempts at evangelism for some good.

[6] I have to admit that I’ve actually never heard a sermon on evangelism in any Episcopal Church, except for last Sunday, when Rev. Bruce encouraged us to invite others to “Come and see.” I have noticed a lack of anxiety about evangelizing in the Episcopal Church. And, ironically, that is part of what drew me to the church, probably because I came from a church that made me worried that I wasn’t evangelizing enough. Episcopalians won me over with their general silence on evangelism. Some might say that Episcopalians don’t evangelize, but I believe they do, in more subtle and silent ways.

3 thoughts on “Evangelizing in God’s First Language

  1. I do feel that music can be a means of evangelizing. In all my 15 years being a Baptist, I used to feel guilty that I never seemed to have brought anyone to Christ. But now that I think about it, maybe my singing touched someone’s heart.

    I think that silence is especially meaningful when “two or three are gathered in my name.”

    1. Yes. Thank you for this, Sharon.
      Someone just shared this Rumi quote with me: “When I am silent, I fall into the place where everything is music.”
      I hope Jessica is experiencing this silent place where everything is music at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur for her birthday getaway.

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