For this week’s bulletin, click here: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2012
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand onthe man.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
— St. Mark 7,31-37
When you see a child with Down’s syndrome out and about with one of their parents, in a restaurant or in a store, what’s your first thought? Is it, “Wow, they’re doing a really good job with that child”? Or is it, “Wow, I’m glad that’s not me or my family”?
Some people are quite comfortable around those who are different, whether it’s due to a disability or to something they were born with…and some people aren’t. You hear people make jokes about “retards” or the handicapped, those with special needs, and others like them. Or sometimes people are polite, but they’re still uncomfortable being around those who are different. They can’t wait to get away from them, to be out of their presence. Whether we joke about them or hurry away from them, many times there is a basic unease about dealing with such people. Even if we can’t articulate it or we don’t always realize it, the feeling is still there. We are uneasy around them because we feel like we could be them too easily, and we don’t like that thought. We sense that there’s not a lot separating those of us who are “normal” from those who are not.
People with disabilities or birth defects or congenital diseases remind us about something we don’t always want to remember, because their condition is caused by sin. Sin deforms the limbs of children in the womb. Sin stopped up the ears and tied the tongue of the deaf man in our gospel for today. It still sabotages the normal development and function of children and adults in a thousand different ways. It warps the normal, healthy, God-given pattern of growing up and living. We’re all susceptible to it – even if not all of us use a wheelchair or have Down’s syndrome or spina bifida or any one of countless other medical problems. That’s because we’re all sinners, and sin lives in us, even if we look normal and healthy on the outside.
We’d prefer not to acknowledge that fact. It’s easier to deny our essential sinfulness and act like everything’s all right if we look all right. Many times we pay more attention to appearances rather than to the actual, deeper realities. We settle for things looking okay on the surface, even if they’re not okay. People like this deaf man, and others like him, upset that outward balance in us, because they remind us of the brokenness of human nature that hides under the surface. Sin infects our lives, it twists us and warps us, and it presses down on us with an intolerable burden… and sometimes it’s just easier to pretend it’s not there.
Our age professes to be very concerned about “quality of life,” but what that really comes down to is quality of my life. It can’t be anything else in a world that’s beginning to allow parents to choose their offspring based on gender or other supposed traits – a world that kills infants and destroys life in the womb for no other reason than they’re inconvenient – a world that condones putting the elderly and infirm to death, because we can’t bear to see reminders that incapacity and death are the deserved fate of every sinner – you and me too.
Getting rid of those who have such severe problems or hiding them away, or even killing them, isn’t a solution. For us, the solution is that there is no solution. We are unable to fix or control the problems that sin brings on our bodies and our souls. We are just like those people in the crowd in our gospel today, who are helpless to deal with the man’s deafness – so all they can do is bring him to Jesus.
All they want Jesus to do is place His hands on the man, but Jesus does much more than that. He takes the man aside, off by himself. He jams His fingers into the man’s ears, He spits, and He grabs the man’s tongue. The fingers in the ears and the grabbing the tongue are much more forceful than most modern versions make them sound. Jesus is almost being rough with this man. Then – and this is the most interesting part – right before He heals the man by His Word, Jesus looks up to heaven and He sighs, or we could say He groans or cries out.
In John chapter 11, right before He raises Lazarus, Jesus also looks up, but there He prays audibly – for the sake of those who stood by and heard Him, He says. Here, separated from the crowd and off by Himself with the suffering man, He simply looks up and groans, He sighs. “Father, look what sin has done to Your children,” He seems to be saying. “Look how miserably they struggle through life. What can be done, Father?” No words are needed between Him and His Father in heaven at this point. He just groans. The only word He speaks is Ephatha – Be opened!, which is for the deaf man.
Jesus groans for the condition of this man. Think about what life must have been like for this man who was deaf and mute. He can’t hear God’s Word; he can’t hear the reassurance of God’s love and forgiveness for him. He can’t confess his sins. He can’t cry out to God with his voice – he can’t tell exactly what is bothering him, what is worst about his condition. He can’t ask for help or pardon. He can’t tell what his fears and his sorrows are – and the things we can’t say out loud eventually eat us up inside. This man may as well be dead. If you feel like you’re not hearing the message of rescue or relief that you need, and you feel like you can’t even tell another living soul what you’re going through, your burdens and your worries, all your fears…there is no worse place to be than that.
With His own groans, Jesus is expelling this man’s inability to speak or hear, which was caused by sin. Jesus cries out for this man, even as He is in the process of healing him. Jesus never forgot the person He was caring for. He never lost sight of the individual. Sometimes unfortunately doctors or nurses in this world aren’t as caring as they could be. They’re human too. They get too busy or rushed, they might just plain have a bad day, and they might momentarily forget that the patient they’re dealing with is more than just a collection of symptoms. Jesus never forgot that.
Jesus looks up and groans, just as we lift up our eyes and look up to heaven, and we groan. We too sigh, out of helplessness, frustration, shame, anger, maybe even guilt. We sigh because we have no words – or we’re too tired and past the point of using words.
Even though this man couldn’t speak rightly, could hardly talk, Jesus still heard him when he cried out in his heart – in frustration and rage at the physical inability he suffered under, at the shame he felt over his condition, in regret and sorrow at everything he couldn’t do. Jesus heard all that, even though the man never spoke it out loud. And He hears you too. He hears the prayers of your heart, the inarticulate sobs and screams that echo in your mind and heart but never pass your lips. He feels the depth of pain behind every grunt, every groan, every whimper or moan – and He groans right along with you. He groans for you as your Mediator, your Intercessor, who carries your every prayer before the Father and makes them eloquent and acceptable through the Spirit. He hears and He groans for you, because He came to take all your pain and sorrow, your every infirmity, on Himself – to get rid of it all. To throw it into the depths of the sea, never to be seen again. “Surely He has taken up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.” He came to break the curse of sin, to clear the ears of our hearts to hear and believe His Word, to loosen our tongues to praise His holy name and to sing praises to Him forevermore in the halls of heaven. That’s why He groans: because He knows what sin does to you, every day, and what it will do in the future – up to and including your death. Even though He’s about to heal this man, and He knows that one day as He groans out His last breaths on Calvary’s cross He’ll undo the ancient curse of sin, He still groans – because He knows what you go through, and what you have to deal with every day.
Jesus has pity on you. He knows what you’re going through. He laments what’s happening to you just as much as you do – more, in fact – because He not only knows and feels, He also takes your child’s problems, or your loved one’s, or your own, on Himself – and He takes it away. His Word accomplishes miraculous things. His Word opens the ears of the deaf and loosens the tongue of the mute so that we shout His praise. His Word grants improvement and rehabilitation. His Word gives hope and good days. His Word heals what mere mortal man cannot cure – and if the Word doesn’t cure you in this life the way that Jesus, the Word made flesh, cured this deaf man here, it will cure you at the Last Day, when all who are in their tombs will hear the voice of the Son of God and will come out, and we will be healed of all sin and sickness and death forever.
I wouldn’t blame someone who wanted to ask, “What if I never hear Ephatha? What if Jesus never seems to speak the Word that sets me free? Does that mean He’s failed me?” It’s an honest question, and the answer is: No! He has done all things well. If He’s left you under the burden of illness or disability, it’s because He’s chosen a later date for your deliverance, so that your healing will be all the greater – or because in His unfathomable mercy and compassion, He knows that it will be better for you in the end to have struggled and trusted in Him, rather than letting you overcome too easily and perhaps turn your heart away from God. Even if you never get the outcome or the healing you’ve been begging for, you can still hold fast to this one truth: “He has done all things well.” He has taken upon Himself your sin, your weakness, your shame, and in the process He has healed you and taken them all away. His resurrection from the dead proves it. His healing of this man proves it.
Jesus thrusts His fingers into the man’s ears and grabs his tongue, but when He speaks it’s to say, “Be opened!” This shows that listening is a higher priority for Jesus than talking. In other words, God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason: so you can listen more than you talk. Many times we are exactly opposite. We all want to talk and nobody wants to listen. We all get so wrapped up in our own thoughts, our own opinions and ideas, that we’re not all that interested in hearing what God has to say – not like we should be. Jesus has opened your ears to hear His Word, and He has opened your heart to believe it. He has made you an eager hearer of His Word that saves, by speaking the Word that works faith in your heart.
See to it that you do not refuse Him who speaks; instead, hear what God the Lord will say: peace to His people! Your sins are forgiven, you are God’s child, and He will not desert you. He hears you every time you cry to Him. He has given you two ears, so that you can hear His Word gladly and often; He has given you a mouth, that you may sing the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light, and that you might declare all His mighty acts. He has opened your lips so that you might declare His praises, just like we sang at the beginning of the service. “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise” isn’t a churchy way of saying Hello in Morning Praise. It’s a declaration of who we are now: those who were formerly deaf and mute in the power of sin, but now who live before God and hear His Word and praise Him forever. Jesus has opened your ears and loosened your tongue. Use them to His glory. Amen.