Attention is often given to the words of Jesus. Rightly so! He is wisdom incarnate and his words are a wellspring of truth and life. But I wonder if you’ve ever paused to think about what Jesus didn’t say. I still remember the day, as a nervous seminary student, when I got off the pulpit and a man in the congregation to which I was preaching publicly said, “Judas Iscariot could preach a better sermon.” Now, there’s two things you should know about me. The first is that I sometimes take criticism very personally. Second, I can be reactionary. So as these devastating words fell on my ears you can probably imagine how I wanted to respond. But it was out of this experience–and like I said, I’m not trying to be counterproductive–that I first began to notice the silence of Jesus and what it meant to bear the same cross.
The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle once wrote: “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves. Speech too is great, but not the greatest. Speech is silver, silence is golden.” Now, if there’s an element of truth in those words it’s surely seen in Jesus’ own silence. His silence was a part of his suffering–a suffering that led to his exaltation. The Prophet Isaiah said: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). How often people mocked him and yet he remained silent; they jeered and he was silent; they threatened and he was silent; they shouted and he was silent; they accused and he was silent; they judged and he was silent; they crucified him and he was silent. No threats. No complaint. No grumbling. Not even a self-defense as he embraced the cross silently (Mark 14:61). His silence was, in part, the very womb out of which our redemption was accomplished. Golden silence!
But his silence is also an example to us. You remember, I hope, when Jesus insisted on self-denial: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Of course, those were jarring words to his disciples. Though the cross was long predicted they couldn’t quite bear the idea of the crucifixion–they couldn’t comprehend how the cross makes way for the crown. But that’s what Jesus teaches. The path to everlasting life is a path that is filled with thorns and thistles. Or, to put it more correctly, it’s a path that must be walked with the heavy burden of daily crosses upon the back. When you began the Christian life you commenced upon a life of trial and affliction from saint and sinner like, and you are called to bear it well in faith. And one of those crosses is the cross of silence. Peter didn’t hesitate to say so: “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his footsteps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued to entrust himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:19-24).
But, on the whole, I don’t think most of us–myself included–do silence very well. We’re all too concerned for the defense of self and, if you’re anything like me, your responses are seldom measured, careful, and full of grace. Of course there is a time to speak, but there is also a time to keep silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7). But here’s this wonderful truth. Because of Jesus I don’t always need to open my mouth. As difficult as it is, my identity with him in his sufferings gives me the freedom to deny myself a voice and embrace the cross of silence silently. And in that, the sound of silence is the sound of grace.