St. Mark 7:31-37
September 8, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we hear specific names and places in the Bible readings on Sunday morning or in our devotions, we are tempted to simply tune them out or scan over them with our eyes and give them little mental attention. This is usually because we don’t have a mental point of reference to hang this information on and so it’s in one ear and out the other. It doesn’t mean very much to us, because these names (most of them at least) and places are too foreign to our ears. It’s somewhat understandable, because we are so far removed from that part of the world, but it’s still to our shame, as Christians. This is the historical account of our Lord’s journeys in this world. The Son of God in the flesh walked on this earth in a very specific geographic location and won the salvation for the whole world for all of time, opening up the gates of heaven to eternal life, and we don’t give it the attention we would if we were studying the battles of World War II. The Biblical facts convict us of our sinful apathy, but they still stand for us as proof that our Lord Jesus was born for us, traveled around preaching, teaching, and healing for us, and accomplished salvation by dying on the cross for us as the promised Messiah. These Biblical accounts serve as a reminder of our Lord’s historicity. These accounts are real, historic facts.
Here are the facts for us this morning. Mark records the travels of Jesus from the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel, where He had just fed the 5,000 and debated with the Pharisees; after that He travels north to Tyre and Sidon where He preached the Gospel to Gentiles and cast out a demon from the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (whose great faith He also made an example of to His disciples). Now Jesus travels back south past the Sea of Galilee across the Jordan to the east of Israel proper to a predominately Greek area called the Decapolis.[i]
While in this area, some men brought to Him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. They asked Jesus to lay His hands on him to heal him. And for reasons we can’t know for certain, Jesus takes the man aside from the crowd and uses what seem to us strange ceremonies to open this man’s ears and loose his tongue so that he can speak clearly. Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears, spits, and touches his tongue. Jesus looks up to heaven, groans, and speaks an Aramaic word, “Ephphatha,” which means in English, “Be opened.” At this, the man is healed. All of these details are given by Mark. We trust these details. We believe that they are true and important, even if we don’t understand why. We can piously assign meaning to the details understanding that we can’t be dogmatic about it and and can’t insist on meaning that the Bible does not give.
Here is what we piously deduce from these facts. Jesus does not shirk the use of ceremony [What I mean by ceremony is everything beyond the words “Ephphatha.” Taking the man aside, touching his ears, spiting, touching his tongue, looking up to heaven, and groaning]. He does not avoid the use of nature for salutary purposes. Here He uses spit, but in other places He uses mud, or water, or wine, or bread, or human agents, etc. Even as He looks up to heaven, He is giving us a picture of His own obedience to the Father’s will and showing us from whence comes our help in times of trouble. “Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:2). He groans, suffering with this man under the curse of sin, not from any sin that belongs to Him, but in divine compassion, taking on himself the sin that belongs to this man and by connection, to us. He speaks audible, understandable words that have power to do what they mean—be opened, and they were opened.
At a minimum this account serves to fulfill the words of the Prophet Isaiah, which the people also noticed, that Jesus was fulfilling the Messianic role making the deaf hear and the mute speak. But there is a long tradition in the Church to also see in this man and his healing an allegory of what God also does for each and every Christian. The allegory in no way detracts from the account’s historicity. It adds to our understanding of how Jesus deals with people. Here is the allegory: The deaf and speech impeded man represents all sinful people that are born with original sin. Every person born according to nature has an inborn inability to hear God’s word or speak proper prayers or praise or give true confession of the one, true God. That’s what we confess when we say that every human being is born with original sin. All people born with original sin cannot fear, love, or trust in God without God’s intervention.
We must be taken aside, apart from the sinful world, “sundered from the number of the unbelieving, saved dry and secure in the holy ark of Christendom” (Baptismal rite). So on the surface, this deaf man represents us.
We can dive deeper into this allegory by seeing in the people that brought this man to Jesus those responsible for bringing us to the Church, whether it’s your parents, teachers, pastors, or friends who initially brought you to the Church for baptism or the hearing of God’s Word. God used people as instruments to bring you to faith, quite literally, bring you to Church.
What’s more, in the healing of this man, we see an allegory of Baptism, where God uses ceremony—washing with water along with the speaking of words—to open your ears to hear the Word of God in faith and to be able to confess in faith true prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and confession of God. And to solidify the connection between this healing and Baptism, you will have noticed that the Church has picked upon this Aramaic word “Ephphatha” and pulled it into its baptismal liturgy. Recall last week when this word was spoken over Micah Oliver (and before that the Woods boys or the Casey girls). We’ve been blessed with many baptisms as of late. And in each of them, we say, “Ephphatha,” that’s is “be opened”. We are speaking God’s Word to open this child’s/person’s ears to the Gospel, loose this person’s tongue to confess the true God, and open the heart to receive the Holy Spirit.
Because of sin, every person born according to nature must also be re-born by water and the Holy Spirit. This is the God-given way of salvation. This is the way that God applies to individuals the forgiveness He won by His sacrifice on the cross. Just like in our account from Mark today, Jesus could have simply healed this man by speaking (or even not speaking, simply motioning toward the man like some conjurer), but He didn’t. He chose to use ceremonies and things of this world to heal along with His words. God could have chosen to save you by any way He wanted, that is true. But the way that He wants to save you is by Baptism—by the washing of new birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit—with the application of water and the speaking of His Word, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is of utmost importance to us, because it is the way that we have been adopted into God’s family. It made us Christians.
We could get into speculative arguments about whether God is capable of saving people by other means, but we don’t need to when He himself gives us the means and says clearly, “Baptism now saves you.” We don’t need to be skilled debaters when discussing Baptism with people who doubt its effectiveness to save. All we need to do is stand on the sure Word of God. “The law[Word] of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps 19:7). Here is the testimony of the Lord regarding Baptism:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” Matthew 28:19;
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Mark 16:16;
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38 [I could easily go on to Romans 6:4; Titus 3:5-8; 1 Peter 3:21]. The Bible says over and over that you have been pulled aside in Baptism and have been give the Holy Spirit to open your ears to God’s Word of forgiveness, and have a tongue ready to confess by the Holy Spirit that God is your Father and that Jesus is your Savior. That’s what we take away from this account in Mark today.
God has given you the means to overcome your sinful apathy. God has opened your ears and loosed your tongue, just as you confess with King David, “O Lord open my lips and my mouth shall show forth your praise.” Now as Christians, read the Bible. Come hear it preached in church and taught in Bible Class. The Words are true and effective. God’s Word never returns to Him without working. He says “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Even the details of names and places are precious to us. For they are the Words of eternal life.
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.
[i] [This is the area where centuries before Balaam was rebuked by his donkey when he was asked to bring curses down on Israel before their entrance into the Promised Land.]