Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2015
“The Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak” (Mark 7:31-37)
Maybe you’ve seen the videos on YouTube or through your Facebook feed. They’re videos of deaf people who hear sounds for the first time. It’s really quite remarkable. You see, there are implants now that doctors can put into people’s ears, called cochlear implants, and when these devices are activated, the deaf person can immediately hear sounds for the first time. And so these videos record the reactions of these people who are hearing for the first time in their lives. They show babies who are hearing their parents’ voice for the first time. They show adults who have never heard before, now hearing. And their reactions? The babies invariably become wide-eyed, and a big smile breaks out on their face. On the other hand, the teenagers and the young adults who have gone so long without ever hearing–when they hear sounds, they become overwhelmed and have to cover their faces, and they begin crying, crying tears of joy and deep emotion. And let me tell you, if you watch these videos, you will begin to cry along with them. It’s really quite moving when the deaf hear for the first time.
We come across a story like that in our Gospel for today, from Mark 7. A deaf man hears for the first time. Only it’s Jesus who’s doing it for the man, and he doesn’t need any cochlear implant. He does it with a word, a strange word to our ears, “Ephphatha.” More on that in a little bit. But the point is, it’s Jesus doing the healing, the fixing up of creation that has become damaged. He does it with his word. And Jesus does all things well. So listen now, open your ears and hear how Jesus makes “The Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak.”
Jesus has been doing all sorts of good things in Mark’s gospel up to this point: healing the sick, casting out demons, calling people to repentance and faith, gathering disciples, teaching God’s word, forgiving sins, feeding a multitude. Jesus has been revealing himself for who he is: the Son of God come on a mission to bless humanity. And he does this very well. So the word is going around: If you’ve got people who need help, bring them to Jesus. And that’s what happens here. They bring to Jesus a man who was deaf, presumably from birth, and because of that, he cannot speak clearly, either. He’s what we used to call a deaf-mute. “Can you possibly help him, Jesus?” Yes, Jesus can, and he will.
Jesus takes the man aside, privately. Since the man cannot hear, Jesus is going to do some visual actions to convey to the man the nature of what he is about to do. He puts his fingers into the man’s ears. “See, can you feel this? I’m going to fix what’s wrong with your ears.” He spits and touches the man’s tongue. “We’re going to fix that, as well.” Why does Jesus spit? Our text doesn’t say, exactly. There was an old tradition that spittle could convey healing. But it also could mean that whatever was binding the man’s tongue was now about to be loosed, since spit emanates from the mouth. In any case, Jesus visually and tactilely–that is, by visual signs and by the touch of his fingers–Jesus conveys to the deaf-mute the kind of healing he’s about to bless the man with. And where is this blessing going to come from? Jesus looks up to heaven. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Yes, and Jesus has the authority of heaven, as God’s Son, in order to help this man.
One other thing Jesus does before he heals the man. He sighs. He groans. Jesus is moved with emotion as he deals with the damage that sin has done on the earth. It isn’t supposed to be like this, humans with their senses and faculties not working. The creation is all messed up. People are hurting. So Jesus our Savior is moved with compassion at the human condition.
And now Jesus is ready to do the healing for the man. He speaks a word, that funny-sounding word, “Ephphatha.” It may sound strange, but still it is a powerful word, because Jesus speaks it. “Ephphatha.” It’s an Aramaic word, which is the language that Jesus spoke. “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And when Jesus speaks, things happen. The man’s ears are opened, and he hears for the first time. Imagine the overwhelming emotion the man felt, like those people in the videos! Tears of joy! And it’s not just his ears that work now, but also his tongue. His tongue is loosed, and he speaks clearly. What a joy! What a blessing! And when the people find out what Jesus did for this man, they are amazed and overjoyed also: “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Nice story. But what does all of this mean for us? I’ll tell you. It means that Jesus will do the same kind of healing for you. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got some degree of hearing loss, the result of chronic ear infections. I’ve got tubes in my ears right now, to improve the drainage so my ears don’t get all clogged up. Guess what? I will not have this problem anymore, and neither will you. And the ear problems and the sinus problems can also affect one’s voice–scratchy throat, and so on. Won’t have that problem once Jesus comes back. He’ll fix it. He’ll take care of all this damaged creation, raising our bodies whole and perfect and glorious, ready to live forever in a perfectly restored creation, a new heaven and a new earth. Friends, this is something to look forward to! This is our hope, our glorious hope: The return of Christ, the fixer of what’s broken, broken people and broken world. Jesus does all things well.
All this comes about, not by way of a cochlear implant, but by way of a cross and an implanted word. The cross: That’s where Jesus does the fixing. All the damage in the world–disease and disability and death–all this bad stuff, all the faculties and senses not working right, all the people not working right or living right or doing right–this all is sin or the consequences and results of sin. Man got out of step with God, man disobeyed and rebelled against God, against our Creator, and everything got messed up: our bodies, our lives, even creation itself. You and I and everybody around us–we all have done this, cut ourselves off from God, and we all bear the consequences and the curse of our sin, ultimately ending in death.
So since we messed things up, we ourselves couldn’t fix it. But there is one who could, and he did, and he does, and he will. It is Jesus, of course. The Son of God came down from heaven, he took on our flesh, he came face to face with our sin, he came finger to ear and finger to tongue with the effects of our sin, and he fixed it. He did the big fixing job on the cross, where he bore our sins in his body, the innocent bearing the penalty of the guilty–Jesus, our substitute and our Savior. This is the only way our sin could be forgiven, our guilt atoned for, the damage undone. And the great result of what Jesus did for us on the cross–this is shown forth in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, showing what is in store for all of us who trust in him, namely, complete healing and everlasting life.
This then was delivered to you in your baptism. Because it’s Jesus’ baptism, really, his big fixing job applied to you personally. There Jesus touched you, splashed you with the life-giving water with the word. There Jesus spoke his powerful word over you and upon you: “John, Louise, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And so it happened. Because Jesus spoke it. His word delivers what it promises. Trust in this word, this baptismal word, which Jesus spoke over you when he placed the name of the triune God upon you. It’s yours. It’s a gift. It’s your new identity as a baptized child of God, loved by him. Now you can hear. Now you can speak. Your ears have been opened to hear the word of the Lord. Your tongue has been loosed to speak plainly what God has done for you. Your tongue is loosed to sing his praises.
In the late fourth century, the early church father, St. Ambrose of Milan, writes about a ceremony that was done when a catechumen was baptized. You see, they picked up on the story of Jesus opening the deaf man’s ears and they applied it to the person being baptized. The pastor would moisten his fingers and touch the person and say that word, “Ephphatha,” which is to open wide. Ambrose and others recognized that in Holy Baptism, Jesus was working once again to do an eternal healing.
Dear fellow baptized, when Jesus speaks his word to us, things happen. Our ears are opened. We begin to hear the word of the Lord aright, that is, in faith and bearing fruit. Our tongue is loosed, loosed to speak and sing the excellencies of our God–indeed, the wondrous healing and saving work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has done all things well. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.