Silent Sermons

For most people, speech becomes a very important component of life. Most of the time, when we as human beings communicate, we do it verbally. The crucial role that spoken and written words play in interpersonal relations should never be underestimated.

Zdravko Stefanovic is a professor of theology at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington, United States.

For most people, speech becomes a very important component of life. Most of the time, when we as human beings communicate, we do it verbally. The crucial role that spoken and written words play in interpersonal relations should never be underestimated. Several passages from the Bible teach that words should be carefully weighed before spoken. The psalmist, for example, once prayed, “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3),1 while Jesus warned that “ ‘by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned’ ” (Matt. 12:37). In Bible times, people perceived words to be agents capable of creating realities, both positive and negative, leading either to life or death.

Christians are traditionally known to be a “people of the Book.” That Book, the Bible, can also be described as a sacred library because it contains 66 books. These books, full of words, communicate the basic message of Scripture through words. After all, Romans 10:17 states that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Seventh-day Adventist Christians in particular, from the beginning of their existence, have understood their important role to take God’s special message and tell it to the world.2

 

Silent preachers

However important verbal communication is, let’s point to the importance of some nonverbal ways in which God’s message can be communicated because silent ways of preaching have often been neglected in Christian life and witness. Why does the use and overuse of words so often eclipse nonverbal ways of communicating God’s love? How can we talk about the good news silently and still be God’s effective witnesses?

Following are three persons from the Bible who witnessed for God even though their words were not recorded in biblical accounts of their lives. In other words, these people were powerful preachers, although their sermons were silent. Their stories illustrate the fact that in order to be an effective witness for God, one does not necessarily have to use words. Truly, their actions spoke louder than words.

 

Abel the shepherd

Early on, the Bible presents Abel the shepherd. This man is not introduced as someone trained in homiletics or speech delivery. The text from Genesis 4:2–4 simply states that at a time designated for worship, Adam and Eve’s firstborn son Abel presented himself before God and brought an offering to Him. In contrast to his brother Cain, who merely brought some of the fruits of the soil from his fi eld, Abel presented to the Lord an offering that consisted of fat portions from the fi rstborn of his fl ock. In the culture of Bible times, where people offered sacrifi ces, this was considered to be the best type of gift to God. Although the mention of a sacrifi cial animal presented by Abel is important in this context, at this time another detail in the story merits our attention.

The writer of Genesis carefully points out that the Lord looked at Abel fi rst, and then at his sacrifi ce (v. 4). The state of Abel’s heart mattered to the Lord far more than the gift that he had brought. For this reason, the Bible teaches that God does not judge us by our appearances or by offerings we bring, but He fi rst of all looks into our hearts (1 Sam. 16:7). What did God see in Abel’s heart? He most likely saw an attitude of gratitude and his readiness to obey and serve his Creator and Lord.

If we were to express in words the message that Abel delivered at that worship service, what would it be? One way would be to say that when God looks at us human beings, He sees what is in our hearts. Abel did not try to hide his heart behind his offering because he knew that nothing can be hidden from God’s eyes. Abel’s story teaches that God looks at the worshiper before He considers the gifts that are brought to Him. In other words, worshipers matter to God far more than the presents that they bring.

Abel’s witness contains a powerful testimony that shows what God is like, yet according to the biblical record his witness was delivered in a silent, noiseless, speechless manner. Some ancient interpreters of Scripture were not comfortable with the fact that this powerful preacher should remain silent, so they used their imagination to make Abel speak words. Thus, although Abel is silent in the Bible, the author of a Targum placed some words in his mouth. Targums are Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible that add lengthy comments to biblical passages, especially those that are short and enigmatic, in an attempt to make them clearer. Thus the Targum Neofi ti 3 on Genesis 4 presents an extended verbal exchange between Cain and Abel dealing with the topic of God’s judgment. In this imaginary duel, Cain accuses God of favoritism while denying any prospect of an end-time judgment. Needless to say, Abel strongly disagrees with Cain.

These targumic additions, although interesting, do not make a signifi cant contribution to the account. As far as the Bible text goes, Abel’s testimony was speechless, devoid of all words. Yet the author of the book of Hebrews described the lasting impact that Abel’s preaching made through centuries when he said, “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifi ce than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb. 11:4).

 

Joseph the carpenter

The opening chapters of the New Testament tell the story of how Jesus was born. His mother, Mary, played a key role in the events that resulted in the birth of the Savior of the world. For that reason many, even today, revere her. However, we often neglect the role of Joseph, who was Jesus’ other earthly parent. One wonders if this neglect may be due to the fact that his words are nowhere found recorded in the Gospels.

Although not a single word of Joseph can be found in the pages of the Bible, that does not mean that he did not effectively witness for God. Much like Abel, the shepherd, Joseph, the carpenter, had no training in homiletics, yet he delivered his silent sermon in a powerful way. Chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew inform us that on no less than three occasions an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and gave him clear instructions on how to ensure that Jesus’ birth and childhood would be safe and sound (Matt. 1:18–25; 2:13–15, 19–21). In all three cases, the inspired writer claims that Joseph did not question divine instructions but rather fully obeyed them.

If the message that Joseph silently delivered through his actions were to be expressed in words, it would go something like this: We should trust God even when we do not fully understand His plans for us. Although we may not see the fi nal outcome of our acts of faith, God’s Word assures us that the Lord’s plans for us are intended to give us “hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11). For that reason we are summoned to trust in God under all circumstances.

Some readers and interpreters from the past were not content to accept Joseph’s silent way of witnessing for God. An apocryphal document, for example, offers the imaginary “account of Thomas the Israelite philosopher concerning the childhood of the Lord.”4 From it one can read about a supposed event that took place when Jesus was five years old. He played with soft clay, which he molded into twelve sparrows. Because this event took place on the Sabbath, a certain Jew reported it to his father, Joseph, who, in turn, rebuked Jesus for breaking the fourth commandment.

No such account can be found in the four canonical Gospels because in our Bible Joseph remains silent, yet obedient to God’s instructions. Presented as speechless, yet ready to conform to God’s will, his witness remained voiceless, yet its message is still effective. One such effect on Jesus’ life can be deduced from Luke 2:51: “Then he [Jesus] went down to Nazareth with them [His parents] and was obedient to them.” Possibly Jesus’ attitude of obedience came in response to Joseph’s trust in his heavenly Father. In this case, the saying “like father, like son” proves to be true and serves as a positive example for us to follow by obeying Him who said, “ ‘For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me’ ” (John 6:38).

 

Dorcas the seamstress

The art of delivering silent sermons according to the Bible can be mustered by both genders. Acts 9 introduces one such preacher known as Dorcas, or Tabitha. Her vocation was tailoring, yet that did not prevent her from witnessing for her God. On the contrary, she used that type of work to the glory of her Savior and for the blessing of others. In Acts 9:36–41 we read that Dorcas made clothes for many needy people. Her heart went out, especially to the poor, and her hands provided for their needs. Ellen White praises the dedicated work of Dorcas in the following way: “She was a worthy disciple of Jesus, and her life was fi lled with acts of kindness. She knew who needed comfortable clothing and who needed sympathy, and she freely ministered to the poor and the sorrowful. Her skillful fi ngers were more active than her tongue.”5

Dorcas may have never had a privilege of speaking from the pulpit, but her way of witnessing was quieter than the sound of words. How can one express through words the message of the sermons that she delivered silently? One could say, Helping the needy communicates God’s love in the very best way. These acts of kindness testify that a gracious God abides in heaven. We have a great privilege to be God’s hands and feet, and that is equally as helpful as being His mouth. Proverbs 19:17 says, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.”

The book of Acts does not remain wordless as to the effects that Dorcas’ silent witness had on the believers of her time. Chapter 11 says that when a severe famine later threatened the lives of God’s children in Judea, “the disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). Indeed, Dorcas’ spirit of generosity was contagious, and it spread among the believers then while even today her story can move hearts.

 

A modern example

Albert Schweitzer was born during the last century in Alsace, France. Both his father and grandfather were pastors. Having earned his doctorate in theology at the age of 27, he became an accomplished professor and writer. Later, at the age of 30, he was known throughout Europe as an excellent organist and organ engineer. Who would not covet such a brilliant career in academics and art? Then came a turning point in Schweitzer’s life. Having studied the life of Christ, a strong desire was born in his heart to follow Jesus’ example. When he was 39, he went to the country of Gabon in Africa, where he built a hospital and served as medical missionary until the age of 90. In 1953 he received the Nobel Peace Prize and donated that money to help lepers in Africa. No doubt Schweitzer, the physician, was another silent preacher.

 

A need for more silent preachers

What Abel the shepherd, Joseph the carpenter, Dorcas the seamstress, and Schweitzer the physician all had in common was that they learned in life how to witness for God without using words. Wouldn’t you say that today the world needs more of such silent sermons? Indeed, in this way, every believer can be a preacher of the good news of God’s kingdom. I have met a great number of believers who witness for God in this way day after day. But we need a much greater number of such witnesses. In fact, all of us need to practice more silent preaching.

 

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Zdravko Stefanovic is a professor of theology at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington, United States.

January 2007

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