Last week we spent time looking at probably the most famous painting that Van Gogh ever painted, Starry Night. But few know the things that converged together in his life that led him to put paint to canvas.
First, one of Van Gogh’s favorite painters was a man by the name of Jean-Francois Millet. Twenty years before Starry Night, Millet painted his own “Starry Night”. And one of Van Gogh’s favorite book was a biography of Millet. Van Gogh had a longing for the infinite and a longing to experience that in nature. He was known to go hiking in the hills, walking on beaches, and even went out into the middle of a field during a thunderstorm to experience the power of God’s nature.
Secondly, on May 8, 1889 Van Gogh accompanied by a local Pastor took the train from Arles to Saint Remy and admitted himself into an asylum. At night in the asylum Van Gogh could look out his window and see the Alpilles Mountains, the cypress trees, and the stars in the sky.
These two things, his desire for the infinite and his condition, came together in Starry Night. His desire for peace and stillness internally and externally. To experience the quiet within his own head, while being wracked by his disease. To also experience the still small voice of God externally in the creation that was all around him. In fact he said, “When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars.”
Now if we look at the painting that riffed off of Starry Night that we looked at earlier, Starry Night, Urban Sprawl, we see a radically different piece where the sky and the sprawl don’t touch at all. The yellow and blue of the sky that is in movement (like in Starry Night)- signifying divine love and presence- doesn’t come down to the village. And the light that is emulating from the village comes from the commercial enterprises. The McDonalds, the Arby’s Big Boy, etc… drown out the light of the divine movement in the sky. In fact, notice the church building. The light that is coming out of the church building is not the same type of light of the sacred yellow light of the stars. No it is the same type of light as the consumer businesses- the restaurants, the franchise stores, etc…In this painting the church doesn’t challenge, differ from, or isn’t set apart from the rest of the consumer light and noise that is all around it, it actually adds to it. The Church in Starry Night, Urban sprawl reflects the values of the earth, not the values of the heavens. The Church in Starry Night, Urban sprawl is a business. They reach out by marketing. They worship through entertainment. And God is another commodity just like the commodities that are all around the church. The din of consumption and the noise of business, production, and busyness (the pale yellow light) crowds out the full rich yellow of the sky. How often does this happen in our world? Where the din of consumerism, busyness, and business (even in the church) crowd out the still small voice of God so that we can’t even recognize the voice of God because of the noise that is all around us- even in the church.
Silence is a rare commodity in our world. But someone once said that silence is the beginning of all worship, and the spiritual life must find it’s origin in silence. They both agree with our Scripture from today which is found in Psalm 46:10.
Psalm 46:10 says, He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;( I will be exalted( among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Psalmist here in chapter 46, according to scholars, is writing a celebration piece about the security of Jerusalem as the city of God. The song points to God’s victorious reign over all the earth. Over the nature itself. Over the powers that would set themselves over and above God himself. It also is about God’s power in the midst of our struggles. In the midst of nature. God’s power to bring about shalom. And at the end of the Psalm, after we hear about God’s power over all. About God’s hand of protection. About God being a refuge and ever present help in times of trouble. After we hear about how he ends wars. How he sets everything to right. What is left after hearing about all of these things? What is the proper response for one who has seen all these things come to pass? A proper response to God’s power, might, deliverance, and his peace? A proper response to all that the Psalmist has seen and experienced is nothing but silence.
Have you ever stood in the mountains where there were no human lights around and looked up at the stars? I went outside the other night to take the dog out and looked up. Now there were human light arounds but still the amount of stars littered in the sky still took my breath away. Have you ever stood on the beach with the water rolling under your toes and looked out at the expanse of the ocean? Have you ever had an experience when you just came face to face with God and his transcendence and you were speechless? This is what the Psalmist is getting at here. He experienced the transcendence, the magnitude, the immensity, and the majesty of God himself, and the only proper and real response was one of complete and utter silence. Skye Jethani in the book from which this series came from says it this way, “When our imaginations are jolted into contemplating our true insignificance, either by a star-filled sky or some other encounter with the transcendent, our response is always the same- silence.”
In the midst of the storms of life and in the silence is where we find out that God is really God. When the Psalmist slowed down, got silent, that is when he truly knew God. It is almost saying in this Psalm that to truly know God we must be still/silent. I’m not saying it’s not possible to experience God at a loud rock concert. I’m not saying it’s not possible to experience the voice of God in the midst of city streets. i’m not saying that God doesn’t speak through the noise of music, movies, etc. I have heard the voice of God (not audibly) in all of those places. What I am saying is that I believe we can hear the still small voice of God better when we get quiet before God, block out the outside noise, try to block out the inside noise (which is harder to block out than the outside noise), get alone with God, and listen for his voice.
Look at Jesus, the son of God, who had a direct connection with the Father. That he said, “I and the Father are one.” Even he needed to get alone, remove himself from the demands put upon him so that he could hear from his heavenly Father, and slow down and rest in Him. We find this Luke 5:16 which says, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” One of the struggles that we all face with the idea of being still and silent before God is when we say we are too busy. But if Jesus, who is the Savior of the world, had time to get away, to slow down, to quiet himself before his heavenly Father, how much more should we take the time and do that.
Besides our busyness, what stands in the way of us being still before God and knowing Him? Probably another thing has to do with the idea of quieting our souls. It is one thing to quiet our surroundings but quite another to quiet our souls and the thoughts that run through our own heads. Even if we get alone in solitude, it is inner solitude that can often elude us. Henri Nouwen said, “One of the main problems is that in this chatty society, silence has become a fearful thing. For more people silence creates itchiness and nervousness.” And because of that itchiness and nervousness we tend to a voice silence at all costs. We turn the radio on to drown out the silence in our heads. The voice that tells us that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, have enough money, have the right car, have the right house, have the right job, etc… Jethani puts it this way, “In our consumer culture silence is the unholy vacuum that must be filled.” And it isn’t hard to fill that vacuum with noise. Noise from external sources and also from internal ones. Noise in the form of sounds, words, images, thoughts, and the noise from voices telling us that to be somebody we need to be a better consumer. And we can buy our way to happiness, fulfillment, and a better life. Consumerism is actually just never ending noise.
If we want to hear the still small voice of God like Elijah heard in 1 Kings 19, then we must get silent and still before God. If we want to know Him, like the Psalmist says, then we must get away and quell the outside and inside noise in order to hear the words of love, truth, grace, forgiveness and mercy that will come. If we want to rid ourselves of the voice that tells us that we will never measure up, we can’t be good enough, and that to measure up and be good enough we just need to purchase the right things, or even buy into the right belief system where God becomes a commodity himself, we need to slow down, be still, and know God. Not for what we can get out of him, but just to be in his presence and in relationship with Him.
Jethani puts it this way, and I’ll close with this thoughts, and few more of my own. “Our imaginations can throw off the shackles of consumerism if we start to feel the infinite once again. This requires taking our gaze off the consumable manifestations of God so prevalent today- the music, T-Shirts, jewelry, and yes even books that reduce and confine our perception of the Divine- and replacing them with the silent contemplation of what God himself has created. In a culture that insists on making God small, we can counteract this trend by focusing our imaginations on what is big.”
Here are some thoughts regarding our perceptions of God, the outer noise that is around us, and the inner noise in our heads. What if we turn off the radio for a few minutes while driving? Do we always need the music on? What if we took a walk in the rain or thunderstorm? What if we took a trip to the beach, not to go swimming but just to gaze at the ocean? What if our group would get together some night just to sit outside and gaze at the stars in silence together? What might we learn about God from that experience that maybe no Bible Study could teach or show us? What if instead of all this talking in church, we actually took some more time to be still and silent together, and let God speak to us.
We’ll spend some time in discussion now, but at the end of our time we’ll spend some more time together in silence. Just listen for the voice of God. To slow down together, quiet our outside world and our inner world, and be still and know that He is God.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. When, before today, was the last time you spent time in silence? Do you sometimes avoid silence because you’re afraid of what God might actually have to say to you?
3. What are some things in your daily life you could change to eliminate some of the noise?
4. Spend a few more minutes in silence with Him. Don’t force anything. Just pray and listen.