How many times have you heard the song “Silent Night, Holy Night” this week? The lyricist, Jacob Mohr must have been a city boy. Have you ever slept in close proximity to animals? I get the “Holy” part, but I can guarantee to you the night Jesus was born was no Silent Night.
My mother grew up on a dairy farm in Upstate New York and has a great affection for cows. The old milking can sits in her living room, and I have a quilt my grandmother made out of the flannel patches used to strain the milk. And can any of the family forget the day she realized her daughter didn’t know the difference between a Holstein and a Jersey? Her dismay was epic, utter shock right there in black and white for all to see. . .
One year, she got it in her head that we should sleep in the haymow of our friends’ barn on Christmas Eve. The friends quickly agreed (but didn’t offer to join us). My father was a harder sell, especially in the freezing weather and blizzard conditions. But, there we were laying out our sleeping bags on the hay in the loft above 130 cows. The cows snuffled and bellowed and kicked their stanchions all. night. long. It was not a silent night.
I can’t hear “Silent Night” without thinking of that time in the King’s barn as well as that night so long ago in Bethlehem. And while those nights were not silent, the life and ministry of Jesus was bracketed by silence–the silence of God.
For 400 years before the birth of Christ, God ceased speaking to His prophets. The steady stream of revelation that extended from Moses to Malachi dried up. The kings were in exile, the poets hung up their harps on the willows of Babylon and wept as they sang the songs of Zion. The prophets returned to their sheep and figs as Israel and Judah were dispersed. These days are sometimes called the “400 Silent Years.”
But “Silent” does not mean “inactive.”
God was at work, preparing the world into which he would send His Son. Alexander the Great conquered the world with his army and his language. The Romans came along and conquered again, building a vast network of roads to connect the Eastern Silk Road with the world of the Pax Romana. Many Jews in Persia and Egypt studied the Hebrew Scriptures and made it hugely accessible by providing a Greek translation.
And then He spoke. First to Zacharias and then to that obedient young woman in Nazareth and to her bewildered fiancé.
Jesus, conceived under unusual circumstances, was born in Bethlehem, King David’s hometown. The Shepherd of Israel born among the lambs, and the herders celebrated with the angels. The Word who spoke the world into existence, cried as He entered it.
The silence was shattered. Forever?
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. . . Hebrews 1:1-2
And spoke and spoke. . .
Jesus showed what God looks like. He received the outcasts, touched the lepers, and saw to the needs of the blind. He comforted bereft parents and then wiped away their grief. The little boy’s snack Jesus turned into an extravagant picnic. He walked the dusty roads with His disciples and invited Israel to recognize Him.
But she had stopped listening. The priests and leaders plotted how they might shut up this troublemaker, but this Lamb of God stood before those rulers at his sham trial–silent. Isaiah 53 records that while we were the straying sheep, He was the one led silently to slaughter.
The next day, we see the Messiah cry out from the Cross. He groaned the words penned a millennia before by his grandfather:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest. . . Psalm 22.1-2
God was silent.
“Not my will, but Yours,” Jesus had wept just hours before. And now, for a moment, it pleased the Lord to be silent.
But “silent” does not mean “absent.”
God was there at the Cross. He was present. His wrath was satisfied in the working out of this plan which preceded even the beginning of time. Jesus’ sacrifice on behalf of His people provided the refuge for all who would trust in Him. Never again would the people of God face the silence of God.
The Silence was shattered forever.
Sometimes our hearts are as noisy as those stables, drowning out His voice. Sometimes the sky seems iron-clad, bouncing back the prayers. But in that silence, His people can know for sure: The Man of All Sorrows, Jesus, the Messiah, the great High Priest, with His death is able to sympathize with His people in every way. He knows. He comforts. He intercedes. He heals. And He speaks.