“Jesus’ Sign Language” (Mark 7:31-37)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018

“Jesus’ Sign Language” (Mark 7:31-37)

How do you speak to a deaf man? With sign language, of course. You make the appropriate gestures and actions to communicate the message you want to convey. And that is what Jesus does to communicate with a deaf man who is brought to him. He uses sign language, of sorts, to get his message across. But in so doing, and then in actually healing the man, Jesus is also using sign language to send a message to us. And so now let’s read “Jesus’ Sign Language.”

Our text is the Holy Gospel, from Mark 7. Mark is the only gospel-writer who records this particular incident. The situation is this: People had heard about Jesus’ mighty works of mercy, his healings and miracles. So they bring him a man who is deaf and mute. He cannot hear, and, like many deaf persons, he cannot speak clearly either. They want Jesus to heal him.

Jesus takes the man off to the side, apart from the midst of the crowd. Jesus wants his full attention, no distractions. He begins to speak to the deaf man, not audibly, but through a series of actions and gestures designed to communicate a message about what he is about to do.

The first thing Jesus does is to put his fingers into the man’s ears. It’s as though he is saying: “Your deaf ears–I’m going to heal them.” That’s the message Jesus is sending by means of this action, and it’s a good sign to start with.

The next thing Jesus does is to . . . spit? Spit? What’s up with that? I didn’t know Jesus was a baseball player; they like to spit. Spitting may seem a little strange to us, but that’s what Jesus does. “After spitting,” it says, Jesus “touched his tongue.” Now our text doesn’t say exactly where Jesus spat or why. He may have just spat onto the ground. In that case, the message he might be sending to the man is, “Not just your ears; I’m also going to clear your mouth out too. I will remove the impediment that is keeping you from speaking clearly.”

But it’s also possible–and this may sound gross to us, but it would fit with what Jesus does in a couple of other healings–it’s also possible that Jesus spat on his own fingers and then touched the man’s tongue with his fingers. That would send an additional message. Not only would it be saying, “I’m going to heal your tongue so you can speak,” it would also say, “The power to accomplish this healing is coming directly from me. What now will come out of my mouth, namely, my word–that is what is going to loose your tongue.” A powerful message indeed!

What comes next in Jesus’ sign language? “And looking up to heaven, he sighed.” A couple of things here. He looked up to heaven. Jesus is directing the man’s gaze heavenward, both literally and figuratively. He wants the man to look to God in faith for this blessing. He wants the man to make the connection that the power Jesus is going to use comes from God, comes from heaven. Even more so, that Jesus himself comes from God, has come down from heaven. That is the ultimate goal of this healing: to recognize something about Jesus, that he is the divine, heaven-sent man of mercy, sent to heal all our ills. And that is the goal of this sign and this gospel text for you today, that you yourself would recognize this about Jesus: that he is your heaven-sent man of mercy, sent to heal all of your ills, in both body and soul.

“And looking up to heaven, he sighed.” By this, Jesus wants the man to lay his needs before God in an attitude of supplication and prayer. And that is what we are able to do. We can come before God with all our hurts–all our ailments and afflictions, all our sins and sorrows, our frustration, our exhaustion–and we can lay that sack of misery before God with the sigh of faith. “Lord, have mercy,” we pray. And he does! He does have mercy. In his mercy, our heavenly Father hears our sighs and supplications, and he answers in the way that he sees best.

After taking the man aside, after putting his fingers into his ears, after spitting and touching his tongue, after looking up to heaven and sighing, now Jesus is ready to speak and to do his mighty work of healing. Jesus is ready to speak, and it is a powerful word indeed. One word, in Aramaic: “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” “Ephphatha!” Even the strange sound of this word causes it to linger and resonate in our mind. Maybe that’s why Mark put that Aramaic word in his otherwise Greek-written gospel. It really stands out. “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” And that is exactly what happens. When Jesus speaks, things happen. Jesus’ words are creative, powerful, and active, accomplishing the very purpose for which he speaks. “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” And so the man’s ears are opened–his tongue is too. No longer are his ears unable to do their job. No longer is his tongue bound, as with a chain. Now he can hear, now he can speak. Jesus’ powerful, creative word has restored his abilities.

You see, now we’re getting at it. Where have we seen this sort of thing before? A powerful, divine word is spoken. The speaking brings about the act, brings something forth into being that wasn’t there before. Why, at Creation, of course. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” And so on, down through the days of Creation. God speaks his word. The thing he speaks, happens. And the result? “And God saw that it was good.”

Well, that pattern of God’s work of Creation takes place here as well, in Jesus’ healing of the deaf and mute man. Jesus speaks the word: “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” And that is what happens as a result. And the outcome? Something that is good.

The crowd in the story saw that what Jesus had done was good. “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’” “He has done all things well.” You know, that sounds like what we read in the Creation account: “And behold, it was very good.”

Well, now we’re beginning to read the sign aright. Jesus’ healing of the deaf and mute man is itself a sign, designed to send a message. It’s sending us the message that Jesus has come from heaven to restore creation. He will undo the damage that the fall into sin brought into the world and into our lives. This healing is sending us the message that God has mercy on our misery, and that Jesus has come to be the agent, the accomplisher, of that mercy. And Jesus does it, he applies this mercy and salvation and healing to us, through his powerful word. Can you read the sign? This is what Jesus is telling us today, that all of this is for you.

The healing of the deaf and mute man was designed to ring bells. The Creation bell, for one, as we just described. And the Messiah bell, for another. The people in the crowd who knew their Bibles would have recognized this. In the healing of the deaf and mute man there is a very specific fulfillment of prophecy. You heard it in the Old Testament lesson for today, from Isaiah 35: “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Can you read the sign? The message is, Jesus is the Messiah! He, Jesus of Nazareth, is the heaven-sent divine deliverer, sent by God to bring in the great end-time age of salvation and blessing, the undoing of the curse. That’s who Jesus is–the Messiah, the Christ–and that’s what he came to do. Indeed, Jesus is God himself, God in the flesh. “Behold, your God will come and save you.”

Be strong, then, you who have an anxious heart! Fear not, you who worry and wonder if God has forgotten you. No, he has not! You saw what Jesus did, didn’t you? He healed a deaf and mute man! Who can do that? Divine power and unfathomable mercy, coming together like that! What wonderful good news this is! Truly, Jesus has done all things well!

But you say, What about me? What about my aches and pains? What about my infirmities, which are only getting worse with age? Why doesn’t Jesus speak an “Ephphatha” to me? Well, let’s think that through. Surely there were other people with physical ailments in Galilee and the Decapolis who were not brought to Jesus and so healed. And there have been millions of Christians down through the centuries who were not healed of their various physical afflictions. Maybe you are one of them. So how is this “Ephphatha” story relevant to you?

The healing of the deaf and mute man is a sign. It points ahead. It shows what is in store for all of us, because of what Christ came to do. Christ Jesus came into this world to undo the curse of sin and death and all the damage that happens in between. The ravages of sin in the world, of sin in us, are things like physical disabilities in all their forms. I am not saying that this particular ailment is the result of that particular sin. But just generally, we all are sinners, and we live in a sin-ruined world, in a fallen creation. Our bodies don’t work right. Our bodies will die. This is not supposed to happen. It’s not supposed to be like this. All this bad stuff is the result of man’s sin, our sin, and the curse we fell under because of it.

But Jesus came to fix all that. And that means dealing with the root of the problem: Sin. Only God can fix that. We can’t. Jesus, the Son of God, can, and he does. He goes to the cross to suffer and die for our sins–he, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And on the way to the cross, during his public ministry, Jesus does these healings as demonstrations–advance previews, if you will—signs of what his saving mission will accomplish. The salvation Christ brings means total healing, in both body and soul, for all who trust in him. Now you can read the sign most clearly! Jesus is restoring creation, and then some! With sin forgiven, death and disease are dealt with. From out of death comes life–eternal life, risen bodies, restored creation. All of this is your inheritance in Christ. This is what we look forward to. Here is hope to carry you through this vale of tears: Jesus has done all things well.

Yes, all things. Are you bound by sin today, burdened with a heavy load of guilt? To you Jesus speaks a mighty “Ephphatha!” “Be opened, be loosed from your burden. My blood, shed on the cross, releases you from that bondage.” Today Christ’s precious body and blood will touch your tongue, and the message is, “Behold, your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” The sure hope of total healing is yours today because of Christ.

Dear friends, today Jesus is speaking to us by means of sign language. And the message is all good. “Ephphatha!” our Lord is saying today. “Be opened!” And when Jesus speaks, things happen. Good things. Our ears are opened to hear the good news. Our tongue is loosed to praise his holy name. Truly, he has done all things well!

Published in: on September 8, 2018 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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