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St. Matthew reports that “great crowds came to Jesus, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet and he healed them… And they glorified the God of Israel.” (Matthew 15:30-31).
That’s a summary version of the healing that Jesus does during His ministry. Matthew’s a ‘big picture’ guy. He doesn’t give us too many of the individual stories of those who were brought to Jesus and healed. Matthew wants you to get the ‘big picture’ which is that Jesus is doing exactly what the prophets said the Messiah would do when He came into the world. “Then the eyes of the blind will 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.” (Is.35:5-6). Matthew wants you to know that Jesus is the One, the Messiah that the whole Old Testament was pointing to. He wants you to know that the Kingdom of Heaven has broken into this world in the person of Jesus Christ.
But our Gospel reading for this morning doesn’t come from Matthew’s gospel. It comes from Mark’s. Mark has the same goal as Matthew. He wants you to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Redeemer, the fulfillment of God’s promise, the only hope of man to be saved.
But Mark is a detail guy. Mark rarely talks about ‘great crowds.’ Mark loves to single out men and women from Matthew’s “great crowd,” and tell their unique story. We hear one of those stories this morning.
“And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment.” I remember many years ago, I took Sarah to Colby College to see a production of “The Life of Helen Keller.” Helen Keller of course was the deaf, mute and blind girl that Anne Frank taught how to live with her handicap. It’s a marvelous story. But the thing that that made this particular performance so special was that the person who played Helen in the play was really deaf, mute and blind. She wasn’t just acting. So this play was both a story about someone long ago and a about this particular girl in the play. And she did an outstanding job. I don’t know how she knew just when and where to be on stage and how her deformed speech was always right on cue. At the end of the play when she came out everyone stood and applauded. The director said, ‘she can’t see or hear you. But if you stamp your feet, she will feel the vibrations.’ And that’s what we did and she smiled and bowed. And we were all “astonished beyond measure.”
Helen Keller is a great story about a particular individual who learned how to live with the incredible challenges of being blind, deaf and mute. Maybe you know people who have broken through the limitations of their particular handicap.
But Mark wants us to see something this morning that transcends every story of personal triumph over whatever limitations we might be faced with. Jesus doesn’t teach the man how get along in life with his handicaps. He takes them away. “And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” Mark wants us to see that this Jesus has the power to ‘turn back the clock’ and reset the human condition in a way that no one else can.
And the question that Mark and all of the New Testament writers wants us to consider is this, ‘just how far back will this Jesus turn the clock?’ ‘How completely will He reset the human condition?’
“They begged Jesus to lay his hand on [the man].” It was common for a Rabbi to be asked to lay his hand on someone. To ‘lay hands’ on someone is to give them a blessing. And the Rabbi would offer a blessing something like, ‘May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob be with you always.’ Today we would say something like, “the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you always.” That’s all that those who brought the deaf, mute man to Jesus were asking for, a blessing for their troubled friend.
But Mark wants you to know that this is no ordinary Rabbi and the blessing that He gives is unlike any other blessing.
“And taking Him aside from the crowd, privately…” The Rabbis liked to make a big show out of this, a little razzle-dazzle to draw attention to themselves. But not Jesus. This was not going to be a ‘photo-op’ or a chance to make a spectacle out of Himself or this man.
Isaiah and Matthew and Mark and all the other writers of the Scriptures all want you to see the divinity in the humanity of Jesus. They want all want you to see that all of the promises of God are being met in Jesus and that He, and He alone, is our hope and our salvation.
But Jesus is not interested in any of that right now. He has completely put aside the ‘big picture’ and His entire attention is focused on this one, individual person who is caught in the net of life in a fallen and sinful world; the net that has entangled each and every one of us. For this moment, however long it lasts, the entire Godhead of the Trinity, dwelling in the person of Jesus Christ, is focused on this one man.
Jesus communicated to him in sign language that this man could understand. “He put his fingers into his ears.” “I understand that you cannot hear. I am going to fix your ears.” “He spit and touched his tongue.” “I understand that you cannot speak. I’m going to fix your tongue.”
“And looking up to heaven, He sighed.” Does Mark capture the details or what? Jesus lifted His eyes to heaven. Today, when we pray, our custom is to close our eyes and bow our head. But the prophets and saints of old had the habit of lifting up their eyes to heaven when they prayed. The Psalmist writes, “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” (Ps.123:1). Jesus is praying.
“He sighed…” The word in the Greek of the New Testament is “estenaxsin.” The same word is also translated “to groan.”
It could mean that Jesus “sighed,” “groaned” just as Paul says we all do as long as we live in this sinful and fallen world. Paul writes, “For in this tent we GROAN, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling…” (2 Corinthians 5:2,4). “And we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, GROAN inwardly as we eagerly wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom.8:22-23). It could be that Jesus ‘sighed,’ ‘groaned,’ because He identified so closely and intimately with this man and with all men and women that He ‘groaned’ with us all.
But surely if Jesus is who all the Scriptures say He is, He has come into the world and to this particular man to do much more than just identify with him and ‘groan’ with him. As I followed this word “estenaxsin,” through the New Testament, I discovered that it is the same word that St. Paul uses to describe the prayer of the Trinity within Itself. Paul writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with GROANINGS too deep for words.” (Rom.8:26).
In the same way, the Son intercedes for us all.
“He lifted up His eyes and sighed…” The Son is interceding for this one, particular individual, in the Spirit to the Father, “with GROANINGS too deep for words.”
Now, there is nothing left for Him to do but say the word. The Word must always be said. Apart from the said word, nothing happens. But when the Word is said, it always does just what it says. “Ephphatha!” “Be opened.”
In the beginning, God spoke the Word into the void, not in “groanings too deep for words,” but in a spoken, proclaimed for all to hear. “And God said…” “Let there be…” And the Word did what it said. “And there was light.” “And God saw all that He made and it was very good.”
“As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever.” Whenever God speaks His Word into His creation, His Word does what it says. “Ephphatha!” “Be opened.” “And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
Jesus is the ‘said’ Word of God, in the flesh, dwelling among us. Through Jesus, God is ‘turning back the clock’ and resetting our lives and His whole creation to a new beginning. He has not come to teach us how to make the best of our miserable lives in a fallen world. He has come to overcome the world and to “make all things new.”
The same Word proclaimed to the deaf and mute man is proclaimed to you.
“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the Word does what it says, one, particular, individual at a time. “Ephphatha!” And your ears that were closed to His gospel are opened and faith is created in your heart. And your tongue that was tied and unable to call upon the Lord is loosed and with your tongue you confess and believe.
“I forgive you all of your sins.” And the Word does what it says. This is not a word that shows you how to overcome your sin. It is the Word that takes your sin away, as far as the east is from the west. It is the Word of the Judge who declares His “Ephphatha” upon you because His Son has paid the full price for all of your sins. For His sake you are ‘forgiven,’ ‘free,’ ‘very good.’
“This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood, shed for you.” And the Word is what is says it is. The same Jesus who touched the deaf and mute man in the region of the Decapolis, touches your tongue with body in the bread and His blood in the wine. “Ephphatha!” And we speak plainly, “He has done all things well.”
The day is coming when Jesus will speak His glorious “Ephphatha” once again. When He does, it will not be spoken privately, to one, particular individual at a time but publicly, to everyone all at once, to those in heaven, on earth and under the earth. And every ear will be opened. And every tongue will be loosed, and all will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father. And there will be a ‘new heaven and a new earth,’ the clock turned all the way back to the beginning, everything reset to it’s original “very good” again.
He who has ears, let him hear, now. He who has a tongue, let him confess now, that Jesus Christ is Lord.